Some students and faculty on one of the nation’s most conservative campuses want Brigham Young University to withdraw an invitation for Vice President Dick Cheney to speak at commencement later this month.
Critics at the school question whether Cheney sets a good example for graduates, citing his promotion of faulty intelligence before the Iraq war and his role in the CIA leak scandal.
The private university, which is owned by the Mormon church, has “a heavy emphasis on personal honesty and integrity in all we do,” said Warner Woodworth, a professor at BYU’s business school.
“Cheney just doesn’t measure up,” he said.
Woodworth is helping organize an online petition asking that the school rescind its invitation to the vice president. In its first week, the petition collected more than 2,300 signatures, mostly from people describing themselves as students, alumni or members of the church.
The display of dissent is rare for a university that has been voted the nation’s most “stone-cold sober” school nine years in a row in the annual Princeton Review of party schools.
Students at BYU adhere to a strict honor code that forbids everything from drinking coffee to wearing shorts or short skirts. The school’s 30,000 students seldom even stray from campus sidewalks, leaving its lawns pristine.
“Cougars don’t cut corners,” is how one saying describes students, most of whom belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Upset by war role
But student Diane Bailey, who is leading a protest Wednesday against Cheney’s visit, said students are not “robotic conservatives.”
Bailey and others are upset by Cheney’s role in promoting faulty intelligence that led the U.S. into the Iraq war. They also cite his proximity to the CIA leak scandal in which his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Cheney’s BYU speech is the first of two commencement addresses he is scheduled to give this spring. The other will be May 26 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Both are institutions where Cheney could have expected to receive a warm reception, Woodworth said.
Utah has consistently supported the administration, delivering President Bush his largest margin of victory in any state in 2000 and 2004. In Utah County, home to BYU, about 85 percent of voters chose the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004.
Richard Davis, a political science professor and adviser for the College Democrats, said the uproar over Cheney’s visit is evidence of a rift within the school and church that belies the faith’s larger claim of being politically neutral.
“He should be invited to come. He should speak. But let’s not send the signal that we’re abandoning our political neutrality,” Davis said. “There is no political gospel in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The church has a policy of political neutrality and issues an annual statement declaring that both major political parties include ideals that Mormons could embrace.
“It’s one thing to invite some milquetoast Republican. But Dick Cheney?” Davis said. The protest reflects lack of support for Cheney, as well as “the larger issue of diversity and more liberal people within the BYU community and within the LDS church.”
Historically dissent has not been well received at the school. Last year, a BYU professor wrote a newspaper opinion piece opposing the church’s call for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. In response, the school announced it would not renew Jeffrey Nielsen’s contract.
Cheney’s office said his commencement speech would not have a political theme.
The school approved a permit for the College Democrats’ Wednesday protest and is working on finding a protest site for the day of Cheney’s speech.
“We recognize that members of our campus community are entitled to their opinions,” said university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. “Political neutrality does not mean there cannot be any political discussion.”