Faculty and students object to commencement speaker choice

The 2021 graduating class is among by the most diverse that UVU has seen. (Photo/Natasha Colburn)

This year, UVU chose Dr. Wendy Watson Nelson to give the keynote address at its 80th commencement celebration. This decision caused pain and frustration for many of UVU’s faculty, staff and students. Dr. Nelson and her husband, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Russell M. Nelson, have published and presented anti-LGBTQ+ stances. 

During a “Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults” Jan. 10, 2016, Dr. Nelson shared what many view as a harmful “pray the gay away” rhetoric. 

“We each need the savior’s help to become the people we were born to be,” she said. “Perhaps we need the gift to have our sexual feelings be in harmony with eternal laws. When we are desperate for any gift of the spirit, that is when we will finally pray with all the energy of heart for that gift.”

In a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune, Kelli D. Potter, an associate professor of philosophy at UVU, explained the issues with having Dr. Nelson as the commencement speaker.

”The problem is that UVU claims to provide an inclusive educational environment. But it turns out that UVU has a distorted understanding of the meaning of ‘inclusive’ which has been imported from the corporate culture that formed our current university president’s perspective,” Potter wrote.

On Feb. 17, around 80 members of UVU’s faculty gathered together virtually to discuss this issue. They submitted a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune where they questioned the commencement decision and promised students that they will work to oppose “administrative blunders” while maintaining “exceptional care” and acceptance for all students. According to the article, The Faculty Senate will also be looking into this matter.

In response to much of the controversy surrounding this decision, Board of Trustees member James Clarke published an opinion piece with the Daily Herald. Clarke argued that UVU should welcome diverse views, and that inviting Dr. Nelson is an act of inclusion. Clarke refers to those questioning this decision as the “vocal few.”

Arty Diaz, a senior communication major who identifies as queer, has published letters on the topic with The Salt Lake Tribune and The UVU Review expressing his disappointment in the university’s selection.

Diaz said that although it probably wasn’t anyone’s intention, having someone known for anti-LGBTQ+ ideology speak on campus could signal to others that these beliefs are endorsed by UVU. Although he recognized that the administration wouldn’t cancel her speaking engagement, he hoped that they would have addressed it in a way that recognized the problem and reaffirms that LGBTQ+ students at UVU are welcome and safe.

When President Tuminez was questioned about the decision to invite Dr. Nelson to speak at commencement in a “Talk with Tuminez”  on Feb. 10, she responded that the commencement decision was inclusive to the 70% of campus that identifies as LDS. 

Diaz believes that reactions like Clarke’s and Tuminez’s reflect a misrepresentation of what inclusion is about.

“Inclusion isn’t about creating that space for people who are already a part of the dominant class, it’s about spotlighting and signal boosting those who are in the periphery into feeling safe and that their perspective and experiences are valid,” Diaz said.

When the announcement was made, Diaz felt frustrated and decided to gather opinions from marginalized UVU faculty and staff to send to the cabinet to reflect how this decision affected them. He had 158 responses in total and found that many others felt disappointed and hurt and that some referred to UVU as “diet BYU.”

Emily Branvold, the program director of LGBT Student Services, said that watching Diaz go through this process has been difficult because it is something no student should have to do.

“I think when we are an institution that serves students, we shouldn’t be asking them to speak up, and possibly put their future at this university in jeopardy. I think those are some basic privileges and rights we should be giving to all students,” Branvold said. “I think that’s why my reaction has been, ‘I don’t know if Arty should have to be carrying so much of the labor, and yet I notice he is carrying a lot of the labor.’ I think that’s where allies have shown up to say we can’t let this happen again and I wholeheartedly agree.” 

Diaz said that part of the hurt was being told that these concerns aren’t valid, or being referred to as the “vocal few” by Clarke. He said that UVU needs to focus on having a safe place for disagreements and difficult conversations.

“The reason why people like me and Kelli Potter have to be outspoken is because we need to drive the conversation somewhere. If you approached me and talked to me, I think most people know I am a really rational, empathetic person that is able to engage in difficult conversations from a philosophical vantage point and channel intellectual ideas,” Diaz said. 

He also said that although Clarke discusses Dr. Nelson’s success and religion in his letter, that is not where the problem lies.

“We are not concerned with her not being academic enough. The problem hinges entirely upon that academic body of knowledge being built solely on traditional family values. It’s not a discrimination against her religion, but it’s more of a question from an ethical vantage point about how does this decision further marginalize LGBTQ+ students,” Diaz said.

Branvold explained how a decision like this can cause a dissonance between the school’s beliefs and actions in that it challenges what the university does in practice and theory. However, one positive outcome has been that Branvold has noticed a lot of allies trying to do what they can to help.

Branvold explained that there are resources for students who are being affected by this decision, such as the LGBT Student Services, Crisis Health Services and Mental Health Services. Branvold’s focus is having a process where students feel heard and supported and getting them the help they need. 

Going forward, Branvold hopes that positive changes can result from this decision and more can be done to support marginalized groups on campus.

“I am resiliently hopeful. I think having been a student in these halls and being a resident of Utah County Orem, I think I resiliently have hope that conversations can be had. Really hard conversations can be had. I am still hoping that every student can be given grace and humanity. I believe that UVU can be an institution that serves everyone,” they said.

“The various intersections of the LGBTQIA+ community exist on our campus. I wish the university could …  perhaps remember that when big decisions like commencement speakers come around,” Branvold said, “I think this is where the rubber meets the road when we invite someone to speak so publicly and so visibly. I think it’s important to see if everyone is welcomed at the table they’re speaking at.”

Although UVU’s choice for the commencement speaker has been difficult for many, dean of students Alexis Palmer shares that the situation around Dr. Nelson’s invitation to speak might result in a better process in future commencement decisions.

“What it did create is a willingness for the president’s cabinet to evaluate how they select speakers and make it a more transparent process, but also thinking through all the identities we have at UVU and how we can be more affirming towards those identities,” Palmer said. “Graduation is about celebration and we want to be able to celebrate all of our students, not just the 70% of students. We want to celebrate 100% of students who have graduated.”

Palmer has heard from students and alumni expressing that they feel the choice of speaker doesn’t represent the many identities at UVU, including LGBTQ+ identities and identities that are not a part of the LDS religion or Christian-based faith. 

She wants students to know that there are people on campus that are trying to create an environment that supports all identities, such as those who worked on Lavender Graduation this past weekend.

“I also want them to know that although they might not feel that they are being heard, there is definitely a large population here at UVU of faculty and staff who want to make sure our students feel included and safe and feel like their identities are being affirmed and are really working day and night to try to do that despite other decisions that have been made,” Palmer said.

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