Jeffrey R. Holland will no longer give commencement address due to health issues, three graduating students to take his place

On April 7, Southern Utah University announced that Jeffrey R. Holland, age 82, will no longer be speaking at the commencement ceremony due to being diagnosed with COVID-19 and having recently started dialysis for a kidney condition. In lieu of his keynote address, three graduating seniors, Sarah Penner, Aspen English and Kalli Ostermiller, will speak at the event.

“We extend our well wishes to Dr. Holland and hope for a full recovery,” President Mindy Benson said. “Instead of finding another keynote speaker, we’ll have this year’s class be represented by their peers. I am confident their messages will motivate and inspire the graduates.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader was unable to attend the church’s televised General Conference last weekend.

“The First Presidency has excused ​​[Holland] from all Church assignments and meetings for at least two months to allow his medical treatments and recovery to take full effect,” the church said in a statement.

In past years, SUU’s typical commencement agenda has included one student speaker along with an alumni welcome and keynote speaker. This year, however, three students will present their thoughts at the ceremony.

— Sarah Penner: a psychology major with a double minor in German and theatre arts from Layton

— Aspen English: a communication and English double major and College of Humanities and Social Sciences valedictorian from Monticello

— Kalli Ostermiller: a political science major from Tremonton

Benson’s decision that the students would speak follows a series of controversial announcements regarding commencement. SUU initially announced Holland as the keynote speaker on March 16, causing significant contention.

In a March 30 email to the campus community, Benson announced that SUU would honor the invitation extended to Holland to speak at commencement. Benson thanked those that shared their opinions and feelings with her and asked for continued engagement. She offered reassurance that decisions and directives would emerge because of the feedback and reaction to Holland’s invitation to speak.

“Today we stand at a pivotal moment in our University’s 125-year history. Together we are writing the next chapter in SUU’s inspiring saga,” Benson stated. “May history say of us that we overcame our differences and found ‘common ground by moving to higher ground.’”

The program will also include remarks from honorary degree recipient Joan Woodbury and the university’s national alumni council president Caytee Wankier. Commencement will take place on April 28, 2023.


Story by: Kale Nelson
Photo courtesy of SUU