Holiday party controversy stirs call to defund school's diversity office

Race & Reality in America
Race & Reality in America

A state representative is calling to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee after it told students and staff to "ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise."

Representative Micah Van Huss says the diversity office went "overboard" when it said on its website that parties should build upon workplace relationships and team morale without putting emphasis on religion or culture.

"They're telling people they shouldn't use the word Christmas," he told CNN Money.

Van Huss will introduce a bill that would defund the university's diversity office in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

"Taxpayer dollars should not go to something that in no way reflects the values of my constituents and the vast majority of Tennesseans," he said.

The university has since replaced the post with one that more generally encourages members of the campus community to be mindful of its rich diversity, to keep an open mind and "approach every situation with sensitivity."

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On Tuesday, University Chancellor Jimmy Cheek acknowledged that the original version did not accurately convey the office's message.

"We are sorry that we did not communicate very well. We've learned a lesson from this," Cheek said in a statement.

He also praised Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Rickey Hall, saying his leadership has improved campus culture.

Hall's position was created in 2013. He and the office are tasked with promoting a "welcoming and accessible campus community."

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The University of Tennessee isn't the only school with a diversity office and more colleges are creating them in the wake of recent protests over racism on campus.

The University of Missouri appointed its first-ever Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer earlier this year. So did Ithaca and the University of Oklahoma.

"The increased number of events on campuses across the nation has propelled the role of Chief Diversity Officers into the forefront," said Benjamin Reese, the president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, in a statement on the group's website.

About 250 colleges are members of the organization, but it does not currently have statistics on how many of those actually have specific diversity offices. There are nearly 3,000 four-year colleges in the U.S.

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Although the University of Tennessee has taken down the post about holiday parties, Van Huss said it's not an adequate response.

"I am not opposed to creating an environment where students of all backgrounds can find a place. I am not opposed to funding staff to foster this kind of environment. However, this is not what the so-called Office of Diversity is doing. They are not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness," he posted on his Facebook page.

His bill would redirect funds from the University of Tennessee to local and state law enforcement agencies that want to place decals with the words "In God We Trust" on their vehicles.

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