SUU campus divided over LDS apostle chosen as commencement speaker

‘Plain and simple: we do not want Elder Holland to speak at commencement,’ one student said.

Cedar City • Special listening sessions were held Monday at Southern Utah University after controversy erupted over the announced commencement speaker — a high-ranking leader from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has publicly spoken about protecting the faith’s family values, and members of the school’s LGBTQ+ community believe his words have targeted them.

Dozens attended Monday’s sessions, hosted by SUU President Mindy Benson. Students on both sides voiced their concerns and expressed support for Holland speaking at graduation.

“Plain and simple: we do not want Elder Holland to speak at commencement,” one student said, with others calling the choice “distasteful” and “unnecessary.”

Not everyone who spoke was against Holland being chosen to speak at the ceremony, however.

“We should not be intimidated into silence. Nobody should be discriminated against or canceled because some don’t agree with their views,” a fellow student said. “Anyone who listens to his talk with an open mind and heart will hear the love in his message.”

It’s an issue that has divided the university.

“Whether or not you agree with Dr. Holland’s views, his presence at SUU’s commencement is divisive and has already tarnished what should be a joyful and important day for our graduates,” another added.

Garn Hughes, the president of SUU’s Pride & Equality Club, started a petition to remove Holland from the graduation ceremony next month. It already has 15,000 signatures and counting.

It reads, in part: “Including Holland in the Commencement proceedings of SUU would fail to serve the student body, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community and students who do not follow the religious teachings of the LDS church.”

“I just felt like I had some sort of responsibility,” Hughes told FOX 13 News. “As a graduating senior, it’s super hard to see this and let it slide, and so I wanted to bring awareness and hopefully have our voices heard.”

Some supporters of Holland say his words have been taken out of context, and canceling him wouldn’t be right.

“This action is censorship and discrimination in full force,” one said. “It would be a tremendous honor to have him speak at commencement.”

Hughes says it’s not a protest against the LDS church, but rather specifically against comments and rhetoric by Holland. One example was a speech from two years ago at Brigham Young University, in which Holland reiterated comments from a fellow church leader calling for more “musket fire” from faculty when defending the faith’s family values.

“Those people who claimed he called for musket fire on LGBTQ people in August of 2021 clearly did not read the full transcript,” one supporter said Monday. “‘Musket fire’ is not a call to violence. It was and is and will be a metaphor for leaders of Jesus Christ to defend their faith.”

Regarding that comment, Hughes said: “Whether or not that was metaphorical, it still did help to instill violence against the communities that we are advocating for.”

“All I ask is that you realize that many of the students graduating here have been personally hurt by this man and his teachings,” a speaker said at Monday’s meeting.

Hughes commended Benson for hosting these listening sessions

“It’s nice that we have that acknowledgment because it shows that she is listening,” Hughes said.

When the university announced Holland as the commencement speaker, Benson said in part: “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.”

“This is not an ‘us versus them’ situation, this is not two sides to argue and debate and fight,” another speaker said Monday. “We are a community, a campus community, and we are here to work together.”

This article is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations in Utah that aim to inform readers across the state.