SUU announces LDS leader Jeffrey R. Holland as commencement keynote speaker, sparking controversy and excitement

On March 16, 2023, Southern Utah University announced via Instagram that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be the keynote speaker for the 2023 commencement ceremony.

“Elder Holland’s southern Utah roots and dedication to education and learning are timely as we wrap up our 125th anniversary year,” stated university President Mindy Benson in the post. “His address will offer inspiration to our graduates to embrace lifelong learning and give back to their communities as they leave SUU and continue to build their lives.”

However, the Instagram announcement garnered over 1,500 comments from students, alumni and other community members. Many comments expressed disapproval for the decision because of the church’s attitude toward members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The backlash prompted the school’s account to add an additional comment 40 minutes after the initial post:

“Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was invited to speak at commencement because of his southern Utah roots and his experience in leadership and dedication to higher education. We have had many religious representatives address our graduating classes in the past, including Reverend France Davis and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. We understand that there are graduating students from a variety of backgrounds and identities, and expect that Holland’s address will connect and inspire attendees to be life-long learners, despite religious or other differences among the audience.”

Reverend France Davis spoke in 2015, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach spoke in 2013.

Holland was born in St. George and attended Dixie High School and Dixie College, now known as Utah Tech University. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in religious education from Brigham Young University, and he received master and doctor of philosophy degrees in American studies from Yale University. Holland was also the ninth university president of BYU.

Holland’s keynote address at SUU will not be his first commencement speech. He spoke at BYU’s graduation in 2018 and BYU-Idaho’s in 2019.

In recent years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has experienced pushback in response to its teachings on LGBTQIA+ issues. According to its website, “Sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife … and the Church does not permit its meetinghouses or other properties to be used for ceremonies, receptions, or other activities associated with same-sex marriages.”

In 2021, Holland gave a speech to BYU during their annual University Conference where he used the idea of “musket fire” as a metaphor when calling on BYU faculty and staff members to strongly vocalize their defense of the church’s beliefs on same-sex marriage and other church doctrine. This was not a call for actual firing of a musket towards anyone, as is often misunderstood. 

“My brethren have made the case for the metaphor of musket fire, which I have endorsed yet again today. There will continue to be those who oppose our teachings and with that will continue the need to define, document, and defend the faith,” said Holland.

The origin of the “musket” metaphor was used before by LDS leaders Neal A. Maxwell and Dallin H. Oaks and is similar to a Bible verse in Nehemiah to describe the dual role of God’s believers. Their roles are to be builders of their faith while also defending their faith, which requires having a weapon to protect against being harmed for their beliefs. The “musket fire” is used in his speech figuratively to motivate BYU faculty and staff to increase their defense of LDS church doctrine.

Despite the nonviolent intention of Holland’s remarks, many in the LGBTQIA+ community have expressed their disappointment and disapproval of the statement and its continued usage.

In response to the announcement, Garn Hughes, president of the Pride and Equality Club on campus, organized a petition for removing the speaker. As of the time of publication, the petition had over 4,500 signatures, which has attracted the attention of both current and former SUU students.

“I feel that the actions made by the administration in charge of this decision were inadequate in representing the student body,” said Hughes. “As a graduating senior and member of the LGBTQ community, student voices need to be heard in decisions that directly affect the college experience and have the potential to do irreparable harm to the relationship between campus officials and minority groups.”

Other students on campus and members of the community are more enthusiastic about the university’s decision. Lawrence Mbaki, another student at SUU, explained that he was excited for the keynote address.

“I don’t think Elder Holland will focus his address on just LDS graduates or students. He will be inclusive in his address,” Mbaki said. “Remember, this is not BYU where a high population of students, staff, and administrators are LDS. So his address will be different. Elder Holland was born and raised in Southern Utah. He is an educator, and I feel like his address will focus more on our slogan ‘Learning lives forever’ more than anything.”

SUU’s commencement ceremony will be held on Friday, April 28, 2023, at 8:30 a.m. in the America First Event Center. Visit SUU’s graduation website for a full schedule of events. SUU offers a number of resources to LGBTQIA+ students, including the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Pride and Equality Club and the Pride Alliance.


Story by: Aspen English
Photos courtesy of SUU