SUU Students Petition To Stop LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland Commencement Speech

On Thursday, Southern Utah University announced that apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Jeffrey R. Holland would be the keynote speaker of the university’s upcoming commencement ceremony. The member of LDS leadership made headlines in 2021 for comments he made concerning LGBTQ+ students in a speech at BYU. Within hours, the university released a follow-up statement on social media to address a torrent criticism of the choice, and a LGBTQ+ SUU student club has started a petition to remove Holland as the SUU commencement keynote speaker. As of Friday morning, that petition has about 5,000 signatures.  

The SUU Pride and Equality Club (SUU PAEC) released a statement Friday morning, saying:

“We feel that the actions made by the selecting committee were inadequate in representing the student body. Choosing Jeffrey R. Holland to speak at commencement actively endorses efforts to marginalize the LGBTQ+ community. We feel that allowing him the opportunity to speak at commencement would not be conducive to SUU’s mission statement of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Graduating students should be allowed to celebrate their achievements and remain comfortable in the spaces allocated to them. Due to these beliefs we are calling for the removal of Jeffery R. Holland as the commencement speaker.”

Southern Utah University responded with the following statement Friday afternoon:

“Southern Utah University acknowledges the feelings of fear, anger and disappointment this announcement has caused to some of our campus community. The University is listening and committed to building systems and practices that help us encompass our different identities through respect and empathy. We encourage dialogue at every level and are reviewing the feedback that has been shared.”

The controversy of Holland as a choice as speaker at SUU stems from a speech Holland gave in 2021 at Brigham Young University in which he rebuked the 2019 political science valedictorian, Matt Easton, for coming out publicly as gay in his speech. (BYU’s Social Science Department approved the speech in its entirety beforehand.) Holland lamented, “If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually, anything goes?” He also quoted a speech from fellow LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks to encourage members of BYU’s faculty to show more “musket fire” when defending the LDS faith’s current views on sexuality and marriage. 

In the speaker announcement, SUU president Mindy Benson says, “Elder Holland’s Southern Utah roots and dedication to education and learning are timely as we wrap up our 125th anniversary year. 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.”

Critics of SUU’s decision to bring Holland in as a keynote speaker suggested the choice was at odds with SUU’s mission. The university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion mission states it is “committed to advocating for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) students, staff, and community members. We believe in creating an environment where sexual and gender diversity is respected and celebrated. As a Center, we resist any actions contrary to the health and success of our LGBTQIA+ communities.”

The announcement has garnered hundreds of comments on social media. In response, the official SUU instagram commented: “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.”

On her resumé, current SUU president Mindy Benson lists that she “promoted LGBTQIA+Allies through events, discussion and new initiatives,” including helping students found the first Pride Club and Gender Blender at SUU. Now, one of the university’s LGBTQ+ clubs is protesting the university’s choice of keynote speaker under her leadership. 

The SUU Pride and Equality Club’s (SUU PAEC) stated mission is “to provide education and awareness on Queer issues, encourage positive change within our community, and provide service within our organization, on campus, and throughout the community.” The SUU PAEC linked the petition, started by club president Garn Hughes, on their instagram following the keynote speaker announcement.

Southern Utah University’s 2023 Commencement ceremony is scheduled for Friday, April 28, 2023.

This story will be updated as it evolves.

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Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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