UT Knoxville Community Supports Diversity Office After Lawmakers Call for its Defunding

Earlier this week, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee were calling for the defunding of the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Office of Diversity and Inclusion for what they said was an attempt by the office to “eliminate Christianity” from the holidays.

Tennessee’s GOP State Executive Committee expressed anger over a post on the office’s website that recommended best practices for organizing inclusive workplace holiday celebrations. Suggestions included refraining from “Secret Santa” gift exchanges or dreidel games.

The guidance also stated: “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.”

The post has since been updated with more general suggestions for best practices, calling on the community to be mindful of the diversity of ways in which different cultures and religions celebrate their holidays.

However, the original post led to an outcry in the Tennessee legislature. One lawmaker, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, called for UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to resign, or for the entire diversity office staff to be fired. Further, Rep. Micah Van Huss (R) sponsored legislation to use the diversity office’s funds for local or state law enforcement agencies to decal their vehicles with the phrase “In God We Trust.”

“I am not opposed to creating an environment where students of all backgrounds can find a place,” Van Huss said in a statement. “I am not opposed to funding staff to foster this kind of environment. However, this is NOT what the so-called Office of Diversity is doing. They are not celebrating diversity — they are wiping it out. It is the ‘Office of Political Correctness.’”

In response, Joe DiPietro, UT system president, reaffirmed Cheek’s “remarkable, transformative successes” on the Knoxville campus.

“Advancing and supporting diversity and inclusion throughout the UT system is important because it is needed and is the right thing to do,” DiPietro said in a statement.

The Faculty Senate and a group of 20 department heads in the College of Arts and Sciences at UT Knoxville expressed their support of Cheek and Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Rickey Hall, and more than 3,000 faculty, students, and staff signed a petition to back Cheek and Hall.

On Tuesday, UT announced that oversight of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion would now be the responsibility of Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for communications, in the Office of Communications and Marketing. Cheek and Hall remain in their posts, and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is intact.

Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee opposed the UT Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s recommendations on gender-neutral pronouns, wrongly assuming that the recommendations were part of an official policy. At the time, a panel met to evaluate UT’s spending on diversity projects and called for changes or cuts to be made.

Currently, UT’s budget for diversity programming is $5.5 million, less than .25 percent of the system’s total $2.1 billion budget.