The University of Tennessee system president says he’s disappointed that lawmakers are questioning so many of its policies and decisions. Still, the school rescinded its latest controversial blog post after outcry from some legislators.
The post from UTK's diversity office advised employees to make sure holiday celebrations remain non-religious and aren’t just Christmas parties “in disguise.” The guidance discouraged events like Secret Santa gift exchanges, as well as the Hanukkah game of dreidel.
The backlash was fierce, with several conservative lawmakers calling for Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to resign. One even proposed de-funding the university's diversity office.
On Tuesday — several days later — Cheek apologized and called the memo "poorly worded." The university's vice chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion will keep his job, but the school's communication department is taking control of the office’s website.
At a press conference, Cheek was asked whether he was caving to pressure from Republican lawmakers.
“No, I think what we have done is we’ve tried to put some procedures and processes in place that will help us better communicate our messages in the future," he says.
System president Joe DiPietro also defended the decision, telling reporters that he could see how the post offended some people.
"It’s kind of ironic," he said. "We’re in this business of trying to advance diversity — and we really mean that, and I’m very committed to it — but then, we seem to shoot ourselves in the foot with either pronouns or holiday directives that upset many people."
Another university memo about gender-neutral pronouns was also taken down after a political backlash.
But DiPietro said he's frustrated that lawmakers are focusing on issues outside of the university system's academic progress. He pointed to new legislation from a state representative that would force UT to reinstate the nickname "Lady Vols" for its women's athletics team.
"It disappoints me because I think they should allow our board to govern us, whether it be [about] the Lady Vols or whether it be these other issues," DiPietro said. "There will be other ones that come up."