Student government is pushing to create a new office of gender and sexuality at the University of Memphis.
The proposed office is much needed and long overdue, advocates say.
While the groups like the Hispanic Student Association and African Student Association get support from the U of M’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, LGBT and woman rights groups have no such advising hub, explained Shelby Elkins, U of M junior and the primary proponent for the office.
Elkins spoke in favor of a bill to create an office of inclusion and sexual diversity during a student senate meeting Thursday.
The bill passed with a majority voting in favor and a few abstaining.
While the U of M has student groups that advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and woman’s issues, they are not adequately advertised or do not meet the student body needs, Elkin said. Creating this office would give these groups a stronger voice on campus and a place to receive encouragement.
“We would never say there are no resources on campus, but there is no central home,” he said. “Stonewall Tigers or 901 Feminist are done only through individual advisors – like a faculty or staff member – not through an office. There is no central hub for these groups.”
Many universities in the South already have similar offices. Tulane University in New Orleans has the Office for Gender & Sexual Diversity. University of Texas in Austin has a gender and sexuality center, and University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has its Office for Diversity and Inclusion as a subsection of its multicultural affairs.
“We are very behind,” Elkins said about the U of M. “The Office of Multicultural Affairs had the opportunity to represent those communities but they haven’t. They’ve hired staff members recently. They could have hired someone who was an LGBT or woman’s rights expert, but they didn’t do anything of that sort. This is why people are talking about this now.”
Even though the bill to create the new office passed, it could be a while before students see its doors open. Tennessee institutions of higher learning have been slow to adopt programs and offices that promote the advancement of LGBT issues.
When UT Knox opened its OUT Reach LGBT & Ally Resource Center in 2010, it was only after five years of planning and preparation.
The U of M was last among its peer institutions to bring the SafeZone program – where certified campus volunteers provide support to LGBT students – to the school.
Another possible holdup to creating the office is money.
The Student Government Association can only encourage U of M administrators to create the office. It is up to university officials to actually plan and pay for the office and hire employees.
For example, U of M’s multicultural affairs office has three staff members listed on its website, an associate dean, coordinator, and office coordinator. Their combined salary is $143,871 – with the highest salary starting at more than $70,000.
UT Knox pays more than $250,000 to the three person staff at its office of diversity and inclusion.
A price tag like these may be unappealing to a university that saw its primary source of income – tuition from students – drop due to declining enrollment.
However, Elkins said, “If enough people want it, they will find the money. The big issue is showing student want and need. That’s hard because you can’t make people say, ‘Hey, I’m gay, I need somewhere to go.’”
With the bills passing, Elkins said he believes he has shown student want.