Are US universities declaring war on Christmas?

University of Tennessee’s advice on holiday parties sets off major political debate, writes Scott Jaschik

December 8, 2015
Christmas tree

Visit the campus store at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and you can buy a Christmas tree ornament of Santa Claus (in Tennessee orange). Scan the Facebook or Twitter pages of fraternities and sororities at the university and you’ll have no problem spotting Christmas parties (yes, Christmas parties, not holiday parties).

Tyson House, which serves as the Episcopal and Lutheran ministry on campus, sent out an invitation to legislators for a Christmas party on Sunday, apologised for having a Christmas party in what is technically Advent and urged the lawmakers to “please calm down, have a cookie, and know that Christmas is safe and well at the University of Tennessee”.

But why wouldn’t Christmas be safe?

A set of online recommendations from the university’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion – while apparently largely unknown to most students and faculty members as they made their holiday plans – are now being much discussed, after legislators started criticising the recommendations and calling for the resignation of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, even though there are no signs at all that he was involved in writing or enforcing the document.

Among the recommendations: “Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture. Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.” And: “Consider having a New Year’s party and include décor and food from multiple religions and cultures. Use it as an opportunity to reinvigorate individuals for the new year’s goals and priorities.” Some have noted that Tennessee has an obligation as a public university not to endorse any religion, the theme of the guidance is about being inclusive more than about legalities.

Amid the outrage, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion posted a new note on its website, reiterating that the guidance was only advice and not policy. And the office stated explicitly that many people can and do celebrate Christmas at the university. “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,” says the statement.

But that statement has not stopped the outrage from growing or spreading. All nine Republican members of Congress from Tennessee have denounced the holiday guidance, and a number of them have called for Cheek's resignation. Some state legislators have vowed to cut the university's budget to punish it for being allegedly anti-Christian or anti-Christmas.

While Cheek issued a statement saying that the holiday guidance has been “totally misconstrued,” there are some signs that the university may not stand behind it. To date, the university has not withdrawn the guidance and a spokeswoman said that there had been no changes in policy.

US Representative John Duncan, a Republican, has been among the strongest critics of the holiday policy. He issued a news release that said in part: “The people on the far Left who claim to be tolerant seem to be tolerant of everything except traditional Christianity. They don’t object to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other religion’s traditions. But they go unhinged on anything that hints of traditional Christianity. They try to take down crosses and Christian emblems. It is a shame and very sad. And it is extremism.”

But Duncan later tweeted: “Spoke to @UTKnoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek today. He was very apologetic. Pledged to take action soon on matter.” The university spokeswoman said that she didn't know what the tweet meant.

Another sign that the university may change the guidance came in a statement from Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee System. He praised Cheek for having been “instrumental” in promoting improvements at the Knoxville campus on many issues, including retention rates and research productivity. “As such, I am carefully considering any decision with the potential to impact the stability and momentum of our state’s flagship institution, in appropriate consultation with our Board of Trustees and with input from UTK faculty, staff and students.”

But DiPietro said of the recent controversy that he was discussing “determining very decisive short- and long-term solutions to the issues before us”.

Many at Tennessee see the uproar over holiday parties as the latest manifestation of a conservative backlash against efforts to promote diversity at the university. In September, conservative lawmakers had a similar outcry over guidance from the diversity office at the university about pronoun options that some transgender students prefer. The guide, like the holiday guidance, was strictly voluntary and the university never punished anyone for sticking with “he” and “she,” but Tennessee withdrew the document.

Is Cornell against mistletoe?

The Tennessee controversy has led the blogosphere to look for other examples of colleges discouraging Christmas decorations, and Cornell University is receiving considerable criticism over a set of guidelines it issued. The top of the document is about fire safety issues, but the second page has a set of non-fire-related advisories. Stories critical of Cornell feature headlines such as “What Did Mistletoe Do to Cornell?” and “Cornell University Warns Mistletoe Isn’t ‘Inclusive’ Enough and Students Shouldn’t Use It.”

The headlines may overstate Cornell’s policy.

Cornell’s policy explicitly states that students or employees may “privately” display religious symbols in their living or work areas. In addition, any display areas available to campus groups may be used by those groups to display religious symbols. What the policy limits is financial support from the university for religious displays, or the use of religious displays in ways “that would give the impression that the symbol is associated with the university, particularly the external surfaces of buildings”.

The policy states that some displays, such as trees decorated with snowflakes and non-religious symbols, are considered consistent with university guidelines, and others (such as wreaths with bows, Santa Claus figures and dreidels) may be OK if discussed within a living area or unit. But as a general rule, the university guidelines bar (outside private displays of) nativity scenes, mistletoe, angels and menorahs.

Those afraid that Christmas is dead at Cornell may want to browse a bit on social media, where they may find the Cornell police department decorating a Christmas tree for children, an Advent Evensong concert last week and a Christmas Vespers concert, among other holiday activities. And the Cornell campus store, not to be outdone by Tennessee’s orange-suited Santas, is selling Cornell bears in Santa hats (that are both Santa red and Cornell red).

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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