Holiday Guidance Removed

U of Tennessee responds to intense criticism of its advice -- and of its diversity efforts.

December 9, 2015

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville has withdrawn the controversial guidance on holiday parties that infuriated Republican politicians, who demanded that the campus chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, be fired and that the diversity office be cut.

The chancellor remains in his job and the diversity office is intact, but the website of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will no longer be controlled by the diversity office. Rather, it will be run by the vice chancellor of communications.

The controversial guidance specifically urged people not to have Christmas parties. While the guidance was not mandatory and many at Tennessee were unaware of it or ignored it until politicians focused on it, it was specific about things to do and not to do.

"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," said the document.

The guidance also had this suggestion: "Consider having a New Year’s party and include décor and food from multiple religions and cultures. Use it as an opportunity to reinvigorate individuals for the new year’s goals and priorities." And the guidance said that holiday parties should not include "Secret Santa" or dreidel or any games specific to a religion. Decorations should be "general" and "not specific to any religion," the guidance said.

That guidance has now been removed from the university website and replaced with very general recommendations that don't specify how people have parties or events at the public university. "As we enter the holiday season, please be mindful of the rich diversity of our campus community. Recognizing a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, we should note that people choose to celebrate in different ways and on varying days of the year," says the first of three paragraphs of the new guidance.

In a statement announcing that the guidance had been replaced, Cheek said that the university had a communications problem with regard to its diversity efforts.

"As an educational institution, it’s our job to listen and to learn. We are sorry that we did not communicate very well. We’ve learned a lesson from this. We want to move forward and to focus on the big picture and our goals for creating and sustaining a learning environment where all community members and all points of view are valued and respected," he said.

At the same time, Cheek sent a separate email to students and faculty members. Both faculty and student leaders backed Cheek amid calls by legislators for him to be fired. And in supporting Cheek, these campus groups cited his commitment to diversity.

In his email Monday, Cheek pledged to continue that work. "I am overwhelmed and encouraged by the tremendous support you have shown me and Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall over the past several days, and the strong commitment you have voiced for diversity and inclusion on our campus," Cheek wrote. "Our commitment is to share and engage in a broad understanding of people, cultures, beliefs and experiences. Our campus community fosters a learning environment where the differences of all of our cultures are valued, respected and celebrated."


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