(WBIR - KNOXVILLE) As state and national lawmakers call for UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek's resignation in the wake of a controversial diversity memo regarding holiday parties, UT students and faculty are coming to his defense.
On Twitter, the hashtag #StandWithCheek has taken off as a way of decrying both criticisms of the embattled list of "Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace" and calls for Cheek to step down.
A petition started Thursday night by students on change.org says, "#StandwithCheek does not mean you stand for Cheek or all that he has done. It is simply recognizing that removal from office for trying to be inclusive is not merits for termination." Another petition was started by the school's faculty on Friday afternoon.
As of Friday evening, the petitions had nearly 800 signatures from students and nearly 500 from faculty members.
"We support Chancellor Cheek in the face of state-level opposition to diversity programs and initiatives on campus," the petition by the students states.
"Let's stand with our students in standing with Chancellor Cheek," the one by faculty says.
The set of guidelines, which comes from UT's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, encourages organizers of holiday parties to avoid placing emphasis on religion or culture.
"Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise," it says.
It also says "supervisors and managers should not endorse, or be perceived as endorsing, religion generally or a specific religion."
The list of best practices specifies, "the university does not have an official policy regarding religious and cultural décor and celebration in the workplace. However, we are fully committed to a diverse, welcoming, and inclusive environment."
Critics have called the set of guidelines anti-Christmas.
One guideline reads, "Holiday parties and celebrations should not play games with religious and cultural themes–for example, 'Dreidel' or 'Secret Santa.' If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange."
UT's Office of Diversity and Inclusion defended itself on Twitter, saying, "You only need to walk around campus to see that we are not anti-Christmas. We are pro-inclusion."
Earlier this year, that same office came under fire when it asked students to use gender-neutral pronouns, like "Ze" and "Xe" and "Hir," for example. UT then clarified the information was offered as a resource but there is no mandate or official policy to use gender-neutral pronouns.
Coincidentally, the UT Student Government Association earlier this week passed a non-binding bill endorsing the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
The measure, which passed the SGA Senate 34-12, now heads to the administration for consideration. Three students abstained.
The bill notes that the new Student Senate mission statement is to "foster the growth and change of the entire student body through relevant legislation by increasing our engagement and cultivating an inclusive campus culture."
The bill endorses the "increased awareness and education about the use of gender-neutral pronouns."
"Be it hereby resolved, that an option be added to the my UTK Banner Service that would allow students to specify their preferred pronoun to be used in a classroom setting, if they so choose," the bill states. "In addition, professors would be given resources regarding appropriate usage of these pronouns."
While it was on Thursday the controversy over the holiday party guidelines blew up, UT Vice Chancellor for diversity Rickey Hall told WBIR 10News the post has been online since summer and the UT Office of Diversity and Inclusion has had something similar up for the past several years.
Hall stressed it is just a list of suggestions.
"This is ridiculous. People fall for it every year. Certain publications want to make an issue of this, and people really fall for it," said Hall about the reaction to the guidelines. "I am not anti-Christmas, I am pro-inclusion."
Cheek responded to the controversy in a prepared statement 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 wrote. "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."
The release pointed out numerous holiday parties and celebrations take place every year on UT's campus and the school doesn't monitor these activities.
Still, a number of lawmakers are calling for Cheek's resignation in the wake of this.
In a Facebook post Friday morning, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said Tennessee's reputation is at stake.
"The General Assembly was assured that no 'practice or policy' would be published without Chancellor Cheek's approval," Ramsey wrote. "If this (holiday guidelines) post was approved by Chancellor Cheek, he should resign. If not, the entire staff of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be dismissed."
He went on to say if UT can't "keep its house in order," state legislators "must shift funding to the University of Memphis, ETSU or other institutions of higher learning that don't embarrass us nationally on a regular basis."
State Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, who has kept a keen watch on UT issues, said he does not think Cheek should resign, but he did say he thinks the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be scaled back.
"I'd like to see the efforts of the diversity office limited to minority recruitment and graduation and non-discrimination. I think that's the basic need that we have," Daniel told 10News. "I think it's just going overboard. We can be welcoming. I think Tennesseans are welcoming and they want to be inclusive, but we don't need to be going overboard where we're indoctrinating our students with this aggressive program of diversity."
In a statement Friday morning, Republican U.S. Congressman Diane Black called the guidelines "Scrooge-like" and said it is "past time" for Cheek to "get a handle on the University's affairs or make way for someone who can."
"The University of Tennessee's 'holiday party' guidelines would be laughable if only the implications for students were not so serious," Black wrote. "With these rules, the UT Office of Diversity and Inclusion is not promoting diversity – it is stifling it. This kind of hyper-political correctness is not representative of the UT Volunteer spirit that our state has come to know and love, and it has no place on the university's campus."
In an email Thursday night, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, called on Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to resign.
They wrote they "have no confidence in his ability to lead the state's flagship university."
That email came after Republican Congressman John "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. blasted the holiday party suggestions during an interview on Fox News.
Duncan, a UT alum, called the post "ridiculous" and an "extremist directive."
He added he was saddened and very disappointed that his former school would do this.
"People all over the Country are sick and tired of all this political correctness," he said. "It is going to an extreme that the overwhelming majority of my constituents and the American people are opposed."
In a video published to YouTube on Friday, UT student body president Will Freeman defended diversity and inclusion efforts on campus.
"Those things have prepared me to become more confident, more able to interact with society after UT, to get a job, to confidently walk around and feel like I've grown," he said in the video, created by UT student Jalen Blue.
Late Thursday night, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion added the following to its website:
Inclusive Holiday Celebration Clarification
Please note that the resource as stated in the first line is a not a policy – it is a list of suggestions for inclusive celebrations.
We recognize that our campus community is diverse and its members observe various religions and faiths.
Our campus has numerous holiday parties and celebrations and we do not monitor activities.
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 practices are an online resource for faculty and staff to review as a means of creating a more inclusive holiday environment within their departments and administrative units.