Brigham Young University (BYU) has rightfully been called one of the most conservative campuses in the country. Yet the private, Mormon-owned school created national headlines two weeks ago when several hundred students gathered on campus to protest the decision to invite Vice President Dick Cheney to speak at commencement. It was BYU's first political protest in 15 years.
Now a group of BYU students are putting together an alternative commencement for those who feel disenfranchised by the Cheney invitation. The idea is to have a ceremony where minority student voices count, where dissent is respected, and where speakers have a track record of service, ethics and accomplishment.
The problem has been finding a venue. Initial calls by group organizers made to local schools seemed promising. Several schools said they had facilities available, including Dixon Middle School, who verbally agreed to host the event. When Provo School District officials were notified, however, plans were stifled.
"We're being blacklisted from Provo schools," said group organizer Eric Bybee, who thought he had secured a location just hours before learning of the reversal.
School District Spokesman Greg Hudnall explained to the Deseret News that a commencement ceremony would be "disruptive to the learning process. . .Many of our schools have been contacted to host protests," he continued. "A variety of principals have called to say individuals have called asking to rent our schools. We've turned them down."
Being turned down is something that has become all too familiar to alternative commencement organizers.
"People have denied us venues because they do not want to get involved in politics," says student organizer Ashley Sanders. "They don't want perceived controversy. We are being denied political discussion because people are defaulting to the status quo."
Indeed, the reasoning given by the Provo School District seems strange considering it is a venue for a commencement ceremony being asked for, not a "protest." The decision has prompted serious questions about why the alternative ceremony is being blocked. Would a request for a more traditional, conservative event be likewise banned? Is Provo School District's decision really concerned with the event being "disruptive to the learning process"? Or is it ideological, or perhaps even out of fear?
"We are getting a real lesson in democracy," says Ashley Sanders. "Growing up in elementary school I was told that my voice mattered no matter who I was. I am realizing now that people who lack wallets and power have a hard time using that voice, and that the very schools that taught me to think civically will not give me a venue to voice those thoughts."
Meanwhile, BYU students opposing Dick Cheney are often reviled by fellow students and community members, who claim that those who don't follow their leaders (both political and religious) are unpatriotic heretics. Dissenting students are frequently made to feel unworthy and unwelcome and sometimes told to simply shut up and leave.
One recent email received by BYU Alternative Commencement from Jason Wright exemplifies a prevalent mind set on campus:
"As you know," he writes, "you are all attending a church-owned private school. Anything that happens there is authorized by a prophet. If there was a problem with Dick Cheney not living up to school standards I'm sure that [Mormon] President Hinckley would have shot down the idea before it got to you. We are also encouraged and taught to support our political leaders. If you don't like the fact that he is coming then maybe you are at the wrong school. Quit your bitching and get on with your life. It's people like you who make the church and school look bad. BYU is full of the biggest pain in the asses. Stop your griping and know that if it was wrong then it would be taken care of."
Another email from Danny Adams reads:
"There are many involved in your cause who have stated their disgust with the [Mormon] First Presidency for allowing Cheney to speak; so to you, and to those who feel this way, [Mormon prophet] Brigham Young may have seen this day when he said "Cut the thread that binds you to the Prophet of the Church, and Sink yourselves to hell!" Perhaps those of you who feel that the First Presidency made any mistake in allowing Cheney to speak should turn your temple recommends in to your Bishops, after all, one of the qualifying questions for a temple recommend is whether you sustain the Brethren. You may try to justify your position by saying that President Hinckley, as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, is not acting as the Lord's anointed when in that capacity, but then again, that's just a justification, and justification is a mile marker on the way to apostasy."
Despite the opposition, BYU students, faculty, alumni, and friends are pushing forward with their plans. Students for BYU Alternative Commencement has now raised several thousand dollars to host their separate ceremony. Organizer and BYU student Ashley Sanders, who will be graduating in just over a week, has asked that her parents' graduation gift be a donation to the cause. Numerous other students have sacrificed what limited funds they have to help make a commencement where they feel represented, where their voices matter, become a reality.
BYU may indeed be the reddest campus in the reddest county in the reddest state in the country. But some students--Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike--are determined to show they won't clap for corruption on commencement day. They will make their own voices count.