James N. Clarke: Wendy Nelson is an exceptional choice for UVU commencement speaker

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Wendy Nelson speaks to Indonesian members in Jakarta.

Wendy Watson Nelson may be best known as the wife and companion of the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but she is so much more.

There are two doctors in the Nelson family — Dr. Russell M. Nelson and Dr. Wendy Watson Nelson. The latter has spent a lifetime as both an educator and practitioner of physical and mental health throughout North America and abroad. As an educator, Nelson began her career teaching 40 years ago, in her native Canada, as an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, then finishing her Ph.D. just three years later in family therapy and gerontology. More than a decade earlier, however, Nelson began practice as a registered nurse, which provided the framework for a then novel integrated model of caring for patients and their families, both physically and psychologically.

For her extraordinary efforts as an educator at the University of Calgary, Nelson was awarded the highest honor given to faculty, the Teaching Excellence Award in 1991. Just two years later, in 1993, she joined the faculty of the Brigham Young University College of Family, Home and Social Sciences as an associate professor in the marriage and family therapy graduate program. From 1994 to 1997, she was a reviewer for the Journal of Family Nursing. Then in 1996, she co-authored “Beliefs: The Heart of Healing in Families and Illness,” with Lorraine M. Wright and Janice M. Bell. Collectively, the authors developed the Family Systems Nursing Model, a now “world famous model for family nursing practice”. Just three years after moving to BYU, Nelson achieved the rank of full professor in 1997. Prior to her retirement in 2006, Nelson had spoken at over 200 academic conferences throughout the world.

Yet, upon retirement from academics, and marrying her sweetheart of now a decade and a half, Nelson’s global educational efforts have only accelerated, while merging her holistic approach of body and mind more squarely into the spiritual. Her ministry shifted to the members of her faith, and equally to those not of her faith as well, while she has crisscrossed the globe building and lifting communities of the poor, the downtrodden and those most in need of help.

While there are a vocal few who have stirred up questions of the suitability of Utah Valley University’s trustees’ decision to support and honor Nelson as commencement speaker to address this year’s graduating class at UVU, it is abundantly clear that those assertions have nothing to do with her body of global academic and mental health care achievements and everything to do with her church’s body of beliefs.

A great concern arises when any faction seeks to “cancel” the voice of another — based solely on one’s faith — a fundamental freedom under which this nation was founded. When this happens, higher education’s own promise of free thought and expression comes under attack as well. The danger of these attacks is that they undermine the entire educational experience of learning, listening and perhaps even liking those with whom you may disagree.

If there is a safe place for people of divergent beliefs to engage, it is the university. UVU’s trustees support the listening process led by President Astrid Tuminez and members of her cabinet, which has culminated in new and even more inclusive guidelines for the selection of future commencement speakers at UVU. We applaud Tuminez’s efforts and the constructive conversations that have happened among students, staff and faculty.

UVU’s leadership holds true to values of exceptional care and inclusion, along with kindness and respect in the face of disagreement. The trustees believe that UVU will unapologetically continue to choose positivity over antagonism and open-mindedness above polarization.

At the very core of inclusion, at UVU or anywhere, must be an effort to listen to those who are different from us, to be genuinely curious about shared values as well as disagreement, and to allow others the dignity to uphold their own beliefs. Otherwise, is it really inclusion if we choose association only with those whose views are perfectly aligned with ours?

As individuals and as groups, we all seek the feeling of love, acceptance and validation. Nelson’s entire life experience has led her to believe in the power of prayer and in turning to God in our darkest moments when we are weighed down by our many cares. Is that belief and counsel so offensive that we cannot offer her inclusion and exceptional care?

Rather than eschewing those dissimilar to us by picking apart the singular threads in the fabric of their lives where we can find fault, should we not seek to include others and seek to understand them, especially when it is difficult for us to do so? Only then do we merit being called an inclusive and exceptionally caring community.

May we set aside our own labels that can defy us and focus our efforts on what will truly define us. Might we look past our own narrow leanings to see the vastness of each other’s good, rather than focusing on the speck of de minimus dustings where we might find offense.

At a time when divisiveness has been allowed to run rampant throughout the world, and especially in a moment when mental health may be as challenging an issue as ever — throughout this COVID era — one might not imagine a more appropriate speaker and honorary degree candidate than the remarkable Wendy Watson Nelson. For her decades of unwavering service and her global leadership in mental, physical and spiritual healthcare, Nelson is an exceptional choice, and we count ourselves fortunate that this global leader would join our UVU community in such a meaningful way.

James Clarke | Utah Valley University Board of Trustees

James N. Clarke is vice chair of the Utah Valley University Board of Trustees.

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