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.

(Courtesy: WATE)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (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. Read the full list here. 

“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.

“I think we’re a public institution and we’re not supposed to be promoting one religion over another,” said Dr. Bonnie Ownley, a professor at UT.

Ownley is the president-elect for UT’s faculty senate and agrees with the suggestions. She helps host her department’s holiday party each year, which includes graduate students. She said about a third have international backgrounds.

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.

(Courtesy: WATE)
(Courtesy: WATE)

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

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.

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.”

“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.”

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.”

UT President Joe DiPietro issued a statement as well.

“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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