Lawmakers call for UT chancellor’s resignation over inclusive holiday celebration suggestions

"Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise," reads the list.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – The University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is coming under fire again, this time for a list of best practices for inclusive workplace holiday celebrations that encourages people to make sure they aren’t “Christmas parties in disguise.”

The list has led two state lawmakers to call for the UT chancellor’s resignation.

Related: Controversy grows over UT’s workplace holiday party suggestions

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” reads the list.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) issued a statement Thursday calling for UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to step down.

“The Office of Diversity is not welcoming to all and hostile to none as they claim,” said Sen. Gresham in the statement. “They are very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values.   By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.”

Related story: UT Knoxville encourages students to use ‘gender-neutral pronouns’

“This is a public university, supported by taxpayer dollars, where the precious resources provided to them should be directed at what we are doing to give our students a world class education,” added Bell. “The people want us to ensure that their money is being spent wisely and we have lost confidence that this is being done.”

UT President Dr. Joe DiPietro said in a statement Friday that while Cheek has achieved great success during his tenure at UT, he and other UT leaders are looking at long- and short-term solutions to the issues.

I acknowledge and respect the comments and concerns shared by members of Tennessee’s state and federal legislative delegation regarding the leadership at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in response to a post on holiday observances. Chancellor Cheek has achieved remarkable, transformative successes over his past six years at UTK that have been instrumental in advancing some of our most important goals. Among these are increased retention and graduation rates, facility improvements, and growing research productivity at UTK.

As such, I am carefully considering any decision with the potential to impact the stability and momentum of our State’s flagship institution, in appropriate consultation with our Board of Trustees and with input from UTK faculty, staff and students.

I am actively engaged in discussions with our Board Vice Chair and other UT leaders and stakeholders in determining very decisive short- and long-term solutions to the issues before us and will share these with our legislative leaders and the public as decisions are made.

Cheek addressed the issue Thursday. “First let me say that we honor Christmas as one of the celebrations of the season. We are in no way trying to dismiss this very important Christian holiday,” he said. “As a diverse campus, we do promote ways to be inclusive of all cultures and religions. I am disappointed that our efforts to be inclusive have been totally misconstrued.”

The list also encourages workplaces to avoid playing games with religious and cultural themes like “Dreidel” and “Secret Santa,” to make sure any holiday cards are non-denominational, and if the party is potluck, to invite people to bring food items that represent their personal religions, cultures and celebrations.

More online: Read the full list

The list has also received criticism from Congressman Jimmy Duncan. “People all over the country are sick and tired of this extreme, radical political correctness,” said Duncan.

Duncan said Friday he had spoken with Cheek, who pledged to take action soon on the matter.

Congressman Diane Black (R-TN-06) released the following statement on the guidelines:

“The University of Tennessee’s ‘holiday party’ guidelines would be laughable if only the implications for students were not so serious. With these rules, the UT Office of Diversity and Inclusion is not promoting diversity – it is stifling it. This kind of hyper-political correctness is not  representative of the UT Volunteer spirit that our state has come to know and love, and it has no place on the university’s campus. Between these offensive, Scrooge-like guidelines, and the school’s much-maligned attempt at regulating  gender-neutral pronouns, it is past time for Chancellor Cheek to get a handle on the University’s affairs or make way for someone who can.”

Vice Chancellor of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Rickey Hall, defended the university’s guidelines. He said it’s simply a resource.

“We’d just take a walk around the grounds, even this building and we’ll see that people have no issue celebrating Christmas. I’m not anti-Christmas. I’m pro-inclusion,” said Hall.

Duncan says Hall is the one should should be fired.

Related story: UT backing away from gender-neutral pronoun suggestion

DiPietro said Thursday Christmas is important to the university.

“We recognize the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus as an important religious observance to many within the University community and beyond. I respect and support the religious and cultural observances of the Christmas season here at UT,” read the statement.

The diversity office issued a clarification saying it is not a policy, but a list of suggestions. “We honor Christmas as one of the celebrations of the season and the birth of Jesus, and the corresponding Christmas observance is one of the Christian holidays on our cultural and religious holidays calendar.”


The office also defended itself on Twitter by saying they are not anti-Christmas, but pro-inclusion.

The UTK Pride Center also began sharing links to other universities’ suggestions on inclusive holiday celebrations.

The same UT office received national attention in September for a list of gender neutral pronouns, such as “ze,” it suggested using to create a more inclusive campus. The office later backed off the list and removed it from its website.

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