Haslam Defends UT Chancellor Amid Latest Diversity Office Controversy

Gov. Bill Haslam voiced support Monday for the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, who is facing resignation demands from GOP state lawmakers.

“My view is that you judge somebody on their entire body of work, and if you look at what Chancellor Cheek has done at UT, his entire body of work is impressive,” Haslam told reporters following a ribbon-cutting for a new Under Armor distribution center in Mt. Juliet.

The University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is under fire from GOP lawmakers and leaders in the state Republican Party for recently posting a list of “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace.” (Note: The original post by UT’s Office of Diversity has been removed and replaced.)

Included was a suggestion that participants at workplace parties refrain from playing “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,” the post went on.

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” counseled the diversity office. “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham are among those indicating they’ll press for Chancellor Cheek’s ouster if he had foreknowledge of the diversity office’s post.

“The Office of Diversity is not welcoming to all and hostile to none as they claim,” Gresham, R-Somerville, said in a press release Friday. “They are very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values. By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.”

Sen. Mike Bell dittoed Gresham’s indignation.

“This is a public university, supported by taxpayer dollars, where the precious resources provided to them should be directed at what we are doing to give our students a world class education,” said Bell, a Republican from Riceville who serves as Government Operations Committee chairman. “The people want us to ensure that their money is being spent wisely and we have lost confidence that this is being done.”

Ramsey, the Senate’s presiding legislator, took to Facebook on Friday to vent his vexation. “If this post was approved by Chancellor Cheek, he should resign. If not, the entire staff of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be dismissed. The reputation of Tennessee is at stake here.”

The Tennessee Republican Party’s state executive committee on Saturday approved a resolution calling on lawmakers and the governor to “eliminate funding for the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion in future state budgets.”

Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, looks to be planning to introduce legislation that’ll do just that.

This isn’t the first time the diversity office has drawn Republican ire. Last summer GOP lawmakers were angered when the office posted a “gender-neutral” language guide for avoiding gender-specific pronouns.

With respect to the diversity office’s future, Haslam on Monday said he continues to see “a role for them.”

The office ought to prioritize “making certain there is equal opportunity for people to attend UT, and graduating, and having great outcomes,” said the governor, who is a Republican and formerly the mayor of Knoxville.

Haslam does think the diversity office “went too far in telling adults how they should act at holiday parties.”

“In this case, I believe they went off into something that they didn’t need to be focused on,” he said.

The UT Faculty Senate is scheduled to meet Tuesday in what’s expected to be a show of support for Chancellor Cheek. Also, legislative education committees are meeting this week on Capitol Hill in Nashville where the matter is likely to get attention of a more critical nature.