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Kelli D. Potter: Utah Valley University is wrong to invite Wendy Nelson as a commencement speaker

Inviting leader of a church that discriminates against LGBT people does not fit UVU’s mission of inclusion.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson waves at the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Saturday Oct. 6, 2018. At left is Nelson's wife Wendy Watson Nelson.

Utah Valley University has decided to have Wendy Watson Nelson as the commencement speaker this year. She is the wife of Russell Nelson, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both of the Nelsons are well-known for their published anti-LGBTQ+ views and, in fact, Watson has advocated the “pray away the gay” approach to homosexuality in a talk given at Brigham Young University.

This will not be the first time a member of Mormonism’s elite has been given this opportunity. In fact, a disproportionate number of commencement speakers at UVU have been Mormon dignitaries. But this one is especially problematic. The problem is that UVU claims to provide an inclusive educational environment. But it turns out that UVU has a distorted understanding of the meaning of ‘inclusive’ which has been imported from the corporate culture that formed our current university president’s perspective.

On UVU’s website, we find the following definition of inclusion:

“UVU is committed to preparing all students and employees for success in an increasingly complex, diverse, and globalized society. We promote civility and respect for the dignity and potential of each individual. We seek to advance the understanding of diverse perspectives. We value and promote collegial relationships and mutual respect among students, faculty, and staff. We acknowledge and seek to address the needs of populations who are underrepresented and students with varying levels of academic preparation, even as we strive to provide access and support for all students and employees in ways that are culturally relevant and responsible.”

There are many problems with this definition, and I don’t have the space to go into all of them. But the main problem is that inclusion is being understood as diversity. But this understanding involves a conflation. The need for inclusion presupposes an existing culture of exclusion that needs to be addressed. Moreover, the various identity groups that make up the student body do not all have the same status with respect to being included. Some of them are historically excluded (people of color and LGBTQ+ people) and some of them are not (whites and Mormons). Inclusion means bringing those that are excluded back into the community. It doesn’t have anything to do with dominant or privileged groups. They are the ones that contribute to the exclusion that needs to be fixed.

So, when Professor Frey Seagrove-Nelson challenged UVU President Astrid Tuminez on this speaker choice, she responded with the claim that, as 70% of the student body is Mormon, choosing Watson to speak was an act of inclusion. For the reasons I gave above, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of inclusion.

In fact, having Watson speak at UVU is an act of exclusion, as this will make commencement a triggering environment for the LGBT+ students and faculty. To say that it is inclusion when it is actually exclusion is gaslighting.

Let’s not pretend that UVU is committed to true inclusion. Merely using the word is not enough. UVU staff, faculty and students need true inclusion and that involves dismantling the structures and practices that are exclusionary, including inviting anti-LGBTQ+ Mormon leadership to speak at commencement.

Kelli D. Potter

Kelli D. Potter is an associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University.

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