SUU students and faculty voice opinions for 8 hours about the selection of Jeffrey R. Holland as commencement speaker

On Monday, March 20, Southern Utah University President Mindy Benson held listening sessions in response to the negative reactions toward the announcement that Jeffrey R. Holland would be speaking at the 2023 SUU commencement ceremony. 

The initial announcement was made on Thursday, March 16, and the Instagram post accompanying the statement has now collected over 2,400 comments from supporters and critics alike.

What was intended to be two separate panel sessions turned into one 8-hour event. Dozens of SUU students, faculty and members of the Cedar City community stood in line for hours to share their thoughts about Holland being selected as the speaker, the vast majority being against him.

Jodi Hart Wilson, chair, and Eric Schmutz, vice-chair, of the SUU Board of Trustees, joined Benson on the stage for both sessions.

“[Holland’s] southern Utah roots and dedication to education and learning are timely as we wrap up our 125th anniversary year,” Benson read from a statement at the start of each session. “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.” 

Holland, who is from St. George, attended Dixie College, now known as Utah Tech University, before transferring to Brigham Young University to finish his bachelor’s degree. He returned to BYU to earn his first master’s degree and earned a second master’s degree and a doctorate from Yale University, among other academic achievements. Holland also served as the president of BYU from 1980 to 1989. He is a prominent leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion that many SUU students belong to. 

A 2021 speech made by Holland is where most of the controversy comes from and was referenced in many student remarks to Pres. Benson.  Holland addressed faculty and staff at BYU and borrowed an analogy from previous LDS leaders. In the speech, he tells the faculty and staff to increase their vocal defense of church doctrine and quotes church leader Dallin H. Oaks, “I would like to hear a little more musket fire from this temple of learning.”

Previous leaders used the musket metaphor when referencing early builders of LDS temples who were under threat. They would have a trowel in one hand to build the temple but needed a weapon in the other hand to defend themselves against attack while doing so. Holland implies that these educators need to be louder in their defense of the church’s teachings including that marriage should be between a man and a woman.  Nowhere in this speech does he suggest violence against the LGBTQIA+ or any other community.

While it was not intended to be a call for violence, many have interpreted it that way, especially within the LGBTQIA+ community.

“Whether it was a metaphor, whatever his intention, it doesn’t really matter. He explicitly endorsed gunfire as a metaphor in defense of his position,” said Kris Phillips, chair of SUU’s Department of Philosophy and Languages.

“There was no call of violence whatsoever in Elder Holland’s 2021 BYU commencement speech [sic] nor in other remarks he has given,” said student Nathan Bracken.

Deena Marchal, the president of SUU Pride Alliance, said, “To honor [Holland] with the opportunity of speaking as SUU’s commencement speaker will adversely impact the inclusive practices that have been crucial in allowing students, staff and faculty to feel a sense of safety and belonging on campus. Earlier this semester, faculty offices were vandalized with anti-LGBTQ graffiti, and we fear that naming Dr. Holland as commencement speaker serves as a tacit endorsement from the university that such violent and hateful speech against this community has a place here.”

Although many of the student body are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there were very few willing to express their support of Holland. 

“There were hundreds of comments when President Benson made the decision. Not a single one of the first comments was in support of the decision. One of my friends made a comment supporting the decision of selecting Elder Holland to give a speech. It was not the LGBT community’s comments getting hate. His comment got so much hate. We are the ones who will be canceled for what we say today. We are the ones who will be hated, we are the ones who have been booed,” Kyson Stilson said.

Many also brought up the issue of separation between church and state.

“As our Founding Fathers knew when they wrote in our Constitution the concept of separation between church and state, faith does not belong in academia,” said Jake Dath, who will be graduating this semester.

“This is a publicly-funded university. You are public officers bound by state law and, as such, are obligated to protect and uphold the state constitution,” said a student named Andrew. “The fact is, Jeffrey R. Holland is an active office holder high within the LDS church. If he were retired from that position, there would be no conflict with church and state in this instance.”

Some speakers argued that Holland would not bring religion into his commencement speech.

“It was horrible phrasing on his part, but I do personally believe he was coming out of a place of love,” said a student named Jaycee, referring back to Holland’s 2021 speech. “His job as keynote speaker is not to talk about religion, and I hope he does not bring up religion if he is the keynote speaker, but to talk about education and the opportunities awaiting our amazing graduates.”

Some suggestions for replacements for Holland were given throughout the sessions. One student provided Benson with a list of 100 LDS women for her to consider. Some students suggested Utah state leaders instead of Holland. The idea of having someone with an Indigenous background talk was also proposed. SUU French professor Elise Leahy even suggested moving forward without a special guest speaker.

Benson thanked each speaker when they finished sharing and addressed them by name. Despite many hours and aggressive comments from some students, she listened intently, and did not defend herself or retort in any way.

In an email dated March 23 to SUU employees and students, Benson wrote, “For those of you who have taken the time to make your voice heard regarding the commencement speaker, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I’m proud of our SUU community for the heartfelt exchange of thoughts done with respect, civility and kindness. Thank you for sharing your stories and engaging in this discussion. I am taking all your feedback and am meeting with the faculty, staff, student and alumni leadership. I am listening and know that through these hard conversations we can build a stronger community. I will be in touch soon.”

Story and photos by: Anden Garfield