OP-ED: UVU President Matthew Holland continues his battle against marriage equality

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Photo by Nathan Gross

When Matt Holland was chosen to be the new president of Utah Valley University in 2009, my partner and I sent him an e-mail at his BYU address. We welcomed him to UVU and said we looked forward to working with him. We were concerned, we wrote, that he was a member of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an organization founded in 2007 “in response to the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures” (NOM Website). Given his work with that organization, we wondered how he might represent a diverse student body, staff, and faculty, many of whom are gay. We received an email in response thanking us for the welcome, reporting that he had stepped down from the NOM board, and assuring us that although his personal beliefs would not change, he was acutely aware of the need for him as president to represent the full range of people at UVU. We took that at face value and over the course of several years were pleased by ongoing efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity on our campus.

In 2015, however, Holland joined an amici curiae brief signed by “100 Scholars of Marriage,” a brief written by Gene Schaerr, the attorney hired by the State of Utah to defend a heterosexual definition of marriage. Holland’s signature on the brief identified him as the President of UVU: “Holland, Dr. Matthew S., University President and Professor of Political Science, Utah Valley University.” Ten of the signers of the brief were from BYU and BYU Idaho and a good number of the cited sources were written by BYU professors. Holland was the only university president among the 100 signatories.

In response, more than 100 members of the UVU staff and faculty published a letter on the editorial page of the Salt Lake Tribune (Sunday, May 3, 2015). We wrote that “All of us, including our university president Matthew Holland, have the right to speak publicly as private citizens on controversial issues. However, as the public face of UVU to the larger community, Holland has a special responsibility to avoid public pronouncements that would harm his ability to carry out his duties as president of a state university officially committed to diversity and inclusion. . . . [W]e find President Matthew Holland’s promotion of the spurious ideas expressed by the “100 Scholars” and the potential association of UVU with the Schaerr brief to be disappointing and harmful to values at the core of our public university.”

President Holland has never publically addressed our statement or our concerns.

On November 3, 2017, the conservative Sutherland Institute gave Matt Holland its “New Birth of Freedom” award. The introduction featured Holland as the President of UVU with an image of him under a UVU flag atop Mt. Timpanogos. The introducer proclaimed that “Matt has led a truly transformational change in a sector often resistant to change.” Holland wore a trademark green tie to accept the award. In his speech, he recounted correspondence between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in 1789 in which Jefferson asked “May one generation of men have a right to bind another?” Both men believed, Holland said, “that there was indeed an unappreciated law of nature, a moral reasoning, a sublime truth, that the living generation should make sure that their actions not diminish the freedom that future generations are entitled to enjoy.”

This inspiring assertion might lead citizens to dismantle legislative actions that gave rights to slaveholders or denied the vote to women or in support of the Supreme Court decision establishing marriage equality. Instead, Holland defended the traditional family in the face of “freewheeling” wishes of “so-called consenting adults”:

“Such a theory of government of course would stand firm against many forms of modern progressivism and collectivism that cavalierly diminish the scope and conditions of individual liberty in the name of equality or some utopian vision that will never come to be in a fallen world. . . . Undoubtedly, the requirement to perpetuate the freedom of future generations must sometimes pull back on the freewheeling practices of the current generation, even if those practices are simply what so-called consenting adults want to do. This is why I have such great and profound appreciation for the Sutherland Institute. . . . It realizes and consciously emphasizes that the conditions of broad individual liberty depend on the flourishing of the family, religion, education, and an industrious spirit of fiscal responsibility . . .” (Sutherland Institute Facebook Page, posted November 7 at 9:54am).

Our founders (not to mention our state system of higher education) carefully separated church from state; education takes various productive forms; fiscal responsibility is the goal of thinkers on all sides of the political debate; and there are many kinds of family. Our president’s history of opposition to marriage equality and now his speech denigrating “cavalier” arguments “in the name of equality” make our collective work devoted to diverse and inclusive education at Utah Valley University more difficult than he can imagine.

Scott Abbott
Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy and Humanities