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University revises its memo warning students not to have Christmas parties in disguise

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For the second time in recent months, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has removed a controversial Web post from its diversity office after chief state politicians threatened funding cuts and called for employee resignations and terminations.

A December website post urging UTK employees to respect a diversity of beliefs when hosting parties during the Christmas season has been dropped in favor of a more general message posted on the UTK website.

“As we enter the holiday season, please be mindful of the rich diversity of our campus community,” the revised post reads in part, and makes no specific mention of Christmas. “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.”

That’s compared to the original posting days earlier that urged university employees to avoid any “emphasis on religion or culture,” to “ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” and to “not play games with religious and cultural themes” such as “Secret Santa.”

As recently as September, the university dropped a diversity office posting by UTK Pride Center director Donna Braquet that instructed students and faculty in using what were described as “gender-neutral pronouns” of “ze” and “xyr.”

Politicians, including Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan and Tennessee Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, have at times called for defunding the school’s Office of Diversity that operates on an estimated $2.5 million a year, the resignation of UTK Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek, and the termination of the entire Office of Diversity staff, according to the Tennessean daily newspaper.

At the same time, many supported Cheek in online posts, and others downplayed the seriousness of the issue. In Dec. 8 comments on the UTK website, Cheek thanked supporters and upheld the Office of Diversity under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall.

“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 said. “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.”

Cheek blamed the confusion on “poor communications” that he said had been a distraction.

“We define diversity broadly to include all aspects of human difference, including but not limited to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, socio-economic status, and status as a veteran,” Cheek said. “We want to understand how to work across differences to the benefit of our students.” The university aims to retain “a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff,” to improve the campus climate and to integrate diversity and inclusion into education, research and outreach.

The controversy is the latest under the administration of University of Tennessee system-wide President Joe DiPietro, including “Sex Week” that focused on sexuality and relationship topics, and dropping the use of “Lady Vols” in favor of “Volunteers” as the nickname for all but one of UT female sports teams, despite a petition of 23,000 signatures to retain the name, the Tennessean reported.

After lawmakers called for Cheek’s resignation and the defunding of the UTK diversity office, DiPietro supported other university leaders.

“I acknowledge and respect the comments and concerns shared by members of Tennessee’s state and federal legislative delegation regarding the leadership at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in response to a post on holiday observances,” DiPietro wrote. “Chancellor Cheek has achieved remarkable, transformative successes over his past six years at UTK that have been instrumental in advancing some of our most important goals. Among these are increased retention and graduation rates, facility improvements, and growing research productivity at UTK.

“As such, I am carefully considering any decision with the potential to impact the stability and momentum of our State’s flagship institution,” he said, “in appropriate consultation with our Board of Trustees and with input from UTK faculty, staff and students.”

In September, DiPietro said he took “no satisfaction” in removing the post regarding gender-neutral pronouns, the Tennessean reported.

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion wanted the UT campus community to use “gender-neutral pronouns” such as “ze, xe, xem, xyr, zirs and hirs,” according to a previous posting on its website.

“We want to be inclusive, and we want to be campuses that make everybody feel welcome,” DiPietro was quoted as saying. “And we’ll continue to do that. We need to train our students so that they’re competent in these areas.”

The four campuses of the University of Tennessee have a combined 2015 enrollment of about 49,000 students, the university reported.

— by Diana Chandler | BP

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