GOP Pressure Prompts University Of Tennessee To Overhaul Holiday Party Guidelines

Republicans in the state want to defund the flagship campus diversity office over the controversy.

Under pressure from Republican lawmakers, University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus revised guidelines Tuesday about holiday parties as state officials started threatening funding cuts.

A brief memo about holiday parties caused members of Congress and state officials last week to call for UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek’s resignation ― and some threatened to cut off funding to the flagship university. The memo had warned employees, not students, to not make their holiday celebrations a Christmas party “in disguise.” It had several bullet points some lawmakers interpreted as rules. 

A revised version was posted Tuesday that cut down the memo to just three paragraphs.

Cheek issued a statement that said he received overwhelming encouragement, but that the memo was poorly communicated and served as a distraction.

“I welcome opportunities to learn and I believe we should take a moment to step back and take another look at how we have communicated our messages,” Cheek said. “Inclusion means honoring all cultures, religions, and customs. Our message should be one of honor and respect, not rules.”

Several statements by critics of the controversial guidelines about holiday parties said that they were rules, a charge the university rejects. The critics also suggested they were directed at students ― but they weren’t.


Students, faculty and local religious leaders showed support online, using the hashtag #StandwithCheek. Tyson House, a campus ministry at UT, asked lawmakers to “calm down, have a cookie.”

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, a Republican, called the guidelines “political correctness run amok,” and joined other state lawmakers like state Rep. Sheila Butt in calling for cutting funding to UT system over its diversity office. 

At a time when universities nationwide are expanding diversity efforts and hiring new administrators to help them with that in response to protests about racism on campus, GOP representatives in Tennessee said they plan to draft legislation to defund the UT-Knoxville diversity office. They cite the university’s attempt to educate faculty about what gender-neutral pronouns are as another example of a diversity office going too far.

UT System President Joe DiPietro said in a statement Tuesday he hopes he can talk lawmakers out of it. 

“We are disappointed by this and believe that advancing and supporting diversity and inclusion throughout the UT System is important because it is needed, is the right thing to do, supports providing the proper learning environment, and better prepares our students to enter the workforce,” DiPietro said.


Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and is based in New York. You can contact him at, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.