Lawmakers: U. of Tenn. diversity office a ‘national embarrassment’

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville removed a web post about “inclusive holiday celebrations” from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s website on Tuesday after it took criticism from state politicians.

The original post listed several traditional holiday practices to avoid at staff parties to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.” Faculty and staff were encouraged to avoid playing holiday games like “Secret Santa” or “dreidel” at parties to ensure that supervisors and managers were not perceived as endorsing religion.

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” the post stated.

The post was replaced with a new statement from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which encourages faculty to “be mindful of the rich diversity” and “wide variety of cultures and beliefs” on campus.

In an interview on Tuesday, University of Tennessee-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said the original post was “poorly worded” and promised to improve future communications. Cheek said he met with Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Rickey Hall, who wrote the original post, to prevent “communications that deter from making progress.” In the meantime, management of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s website has been handed over to Vice Chancellor for Communications Margie Nichols.

Tennessee lawmakers ridiculed Hall for the original post and some even called for Cheek’s resignation for approving the post. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R) said the post “has no place at institutions of higher learning in Tennessee.”

“If this post was approved by Chancellor Cheek, he should resign. If not, the entire staff of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be dismissed. The reputation of Tennessee is at stake here,” Ramsey wrote in a Dec. 4 Facebook post.

On Saturday, the Tennessee GOP State Executive Committee passed a resolution that would strip funding from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. In the resolution, lawmakers said the holiday guidelines were an attempt to “eliminate Christianity” from the holiday season and a “national embarrassment to Tennessee.”

“The Tennessee Republican Party rejects in the strongest terms the efforts of the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion to eliminate Christianity from the observance of the holiday season,” the resolution states.

This is not the first time the University of Tennessee-Knoxville has removed a post from its diversity office’s website. In September, the diversity office removed a post supporting the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Lawmakers once again urged administrators to remove the post and Ramsey called it “the clearest example of political correctness run amok” that he has seen in quite some time.

University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro told The Tennessean he has noticed the increased attention lawmakers are giving his schools and he is disappointed they are involving themselves in day-to-day matters.

“They have every right to be able to say, ‘How are you spending your money and are you doing good things with it?’” he said. “But our board should be given plenty of latitude to govern us in the way that our policies and guidelines and bylaws for the board are laid out.”

DiPietro told reporters the University of Tennessee system will continue to promote diversity initiatives and improve current diversity programs.

“We’re in this business of trying to advance to diversity, and we really mean that and I’m very committed to it," DiPietro said.

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