Faculty Senate defends Univ. of Tennessee inclusive holiday party guidelines

Faculty members at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are coming to the defense of administrators who recently issued guidelines to “ensure that your holiday party is not a Christmas party.”

WVLT reports that members of the Faculty Senate’s Executive Council issued a statement over the weekend supporting Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, who have faced calls for their resignations because of the guidelines, and that 20 department heads joined the effort with an open letter on Sunday.

The controversy was sparked by a document called “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace” that was published recently by UT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, which had previously generated outrage when it published guidelines earlier this year encouraging the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

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In addition to recommending that parties not be scheduled to coincide with cultural or religious holidays, the document provides a list of “best practices” to ensure that holiday parties do not inadvertently evoke any traditions or imagery associated with specific celebrations.

Refreshments, for instance, should include “food from multiple regions and cultures,” which the guidelines suggest could be accomplished by hosting a potluck-style party and encouraging attendees to contribute dishes “that reflect their personal religions, cultures, and celebrations.” At the same time, though, the document also warns that “Supervisors and managers should not endorse, or be perceived as endorsing, religion generally or a specific religion.”

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Although they do not rise to the level of official university policy, the guidelines have attracted the ire of conservative politicians, including numerous state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. John Duncan, who have called for Cheek and Hall to resign for allowing the document to be published, according to The Tennessean.

Meanwhile, WATE reports that Republican state rep. Micah Van Huss has even introduced legislation to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, with the moneys being earmarked for law enforcement agencies wishing to place “In God we Trust” decals on their vehicles, or else going into the general fund.

Spokespersons for UT have declined to comment publicly about the political pressure, but many faculty members have stepped up to praise the administrators for their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Chancellor Cheek and Vice Chancellor Hall have worked tirelessly to help make UT a more welcoming and inclusive place for all students, faculty, and staff, and we support them in these efforts,” reads the statement released Sunday by “Members of the Executive Council and the Past Presidents of the Faculty Senate” at UT-Knoxville.

The full Faculty Senate has not yet met to address the issue—they are scheduled to do so Tuesday evening—but the statement offers several indications that their position will be endorsed at the meeting.

“Petitions in support of Cheek and Hall were signed by nearly 3,000 faculty, students, and staff since Thursday,” they point out, adding that both Faculty Senate and Undergraduate Student Government were involved with the effort.

Additionally, the statement references a letter sent to University President Joe DiPietro Sunday from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which was also signed by 20 other department heads, urging DiPietro to stand firm against criticism of the guidelines

“Such an attack demonstrates the deep need for UT Knoxville’s initiative to respect and increase diversity and inclusion,” the letter asserts. “Inclusion in this case asserts the willingness to welcome all traditions, and not to prioritize one over the other.”

The faculty then go on to argue that the guidelines published by the university “are entirely consistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which refuses the establishment of a state religion, saying, “As a government entity, we firmly believe it is the duty of the University of Tennessee to stand for a position that recognizes no single religious observance over any other.”

Meanwhile, according to ABC 13, members of a Christian fraternity at UT responded somewhat differently, defying administrators to enforce the guidelines with a large banner featuring an illustration of a Christmas tree and the words “Come and take it.”

Clayton Dorman, who devised the idea, said he was motivated by the same outrage fueling legislative calls for Cheek and Hall to resign—namely, that the university would presume to challenge the appropriateness of a Christmas-themed party.

“It's my God given right to be able to have a Christmas party and telling me I can't do that just really sent me over the edge,” Dorman said, noting that his tweet about the banner has generated a far greater response than he had anticipated. “I like to imagine that I am the voice for the silent majority.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete