Why the University of Tennessee Health Science Center revoked its invitation to host an HIV/AIDS symposium for the African-American LGBTQ community is still unclear.
But organizers of the "Saving Ourselves" symposium, an HIV/AIDS awareness event sponsored by the Red Door Foundation, believe it may have something to do with another sexual health event on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus.
"Sex Week," a week-long sexual health event on the UT-Knoxville campus, stirred up controversy last month when state legislators Stacey Campfield, Bill Dunn, and Susan Lynn threatened an inquiry by the Senate Education Committee if state funds were used toward the "inappropriate" sex education event. On March 20th, UT officials affirmed that the $11,145 of previously committed funds for "Sex Week" would be withdrawn.
The next day, organizers of the "Saving Ourselves" symposium in Memphis received an email from local university officials stating that they would no longer be allowed to host their event on the UTHSC campus, because "the UT system which is governed by the president's office on the Knoxville campus is undergoing revision of policy and procedure regarding usage of campus facilities." They were asked to remove the UT logo from all promotional materials.
"I think there was pressure put on the [UT] president's office regarding sex education and specifically what we saw happening to the Sex Week event," said Dustin James, the symposium's board chair and executive director of the MidSouth AIDS Fund. "I don't think it's a coincidence that our event, which also centers around sex education and HIV/AIDS, was canceled in the same week."
Within a few days of pulling its invitation, UTHSC released a statement that cited a mistake by one of its staff members and offered to revisit plans to host the Red Door Foundation's symposium.
"The University of Tennessee Health Science Center's decision to deny use of the Student Alumni Center for the Tri-State African-American Community Summit was in error and based on a staff member's mistaken belief that policies and procedures on use of campus facilities were under revision. We welcome the opportunity to re-open a dialogue with representatives from the community summit," read the statement.
But this renewed invitation came with new set of conditions. UTHSC has retracted all sponsorship funds and reduced the size of the event space by half the original number agreed upon during planning meetings last fall. While they originally agreed to cover the costs of food and printing promotional materials and to waive the cost of using the space, UTHSC has taken all of these offers off the table.
"We have gotten a letter with new stipulations from UT, and as of right now, they are very different from what we were told and what we agreed upon before the space was revoked," James said. "In our original discussions, they talked about how this conference was in line with their mission."
As to why UTHSC would have such a sudden reversal of position, James says school officials have been very vague with event organizers.
"They said they were not going to be able to fund any programming across the board as part of their new policy and that any events held there would have to pay," James said. "And since state funds couldn't be used for the event, they were not going to be able to sponsor or partner with us."
James said organizers are still planning to host the symposium, which is scheduled for June 6th-9th, but they aren't certain they'll be holding at UT.
"We're still talking to UT, but the talks are not promising," James said. "It does not look like we'll be able to use the space. At this point, we're looking for a new space and looking for additional supporters."
"Sex Week" organizers have recovered the entire $11,145 of lost state funds via private donations, and the event is slated to take place on the UT-Knoxville campus next week.