Could anyone have imagined that the major commencement protest at a University graduation thus far occurred April 26 at Brigham Young University (BYU)? Probably not.
But then could anyone have imagined that the Vice President with the lowest approval rating in modern American history would request and receive an invitation to be the commencement speaker? And no one could have imagined the organized moral courage of seniors like Ashley Sanders, Eric Bybee, Steven Greenstreet, Carl Brinton and graduate student Joe Vogel.
BYU is owned and run by the Mormon Church. This year it graduated 5,378 students with bachelor’s degrees, 717 students with master’s degrees and 190 students with doctoral degrees. Ninety-nine percent of the graduates are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Morman Church).
Before wagon-training in the mid-eighteen hundreds to the Great Salt Lake Valley, Mormons were terribly persecuted and brutalized from one migration to another.
The Mormon Church was born from revelation, resistance and dissent. Its mutual assistance commitment to poor or otherwise needy Mormons remains a marvel of organization and steadfastness. So does its expected regime of no alcohol, tobacco or drugs a religious health movement of much success.
The Church today is considered very conservative. Over eighty percent of voting Mormons cast their vote for Republicans. At BYU, obedience, conformity and not questioning authority is part of the cultural tradition.
So just to read in the newspapers about “dissident BYU graduates” planning an alternative commencement in an alternative auditorium jarred the customary stereotypes.
Supported by some faculty members, alumni, citizens of the local community, and twenty students, in the middle of final exams, no less, they persuaded over 3,000 of their fellow students to sign a petition protesting Cheney and supporting a graduation ceremony about alternatives.
The core student organizers are devout Mormons a reality I determined from discussions before and after my giving one of the three alternative commencement addresses. Some had already completed their two year Mormon “mission” in this country or abroad. They were a little older and more experienced than the usual graduating seniors.
They were not about to remain silent. They believed the standards of their faith and those of the university were being violated by the record of Dick Cheney. Included in their list of criticisms were “Mr. Cheney’s involvement in the decision to invade Iraq, his defense of torture as a method of interrogation, his ties to Halliburton, Enron and the Energy Task Force, his extreme conservatism and the conservative pattern of officials invited to speak at BYU.
The students also wished to “highlight the value of free speech, to give minority student voices a voice and to highlight the need for alternatives, dissent, and diversity.”
Also invited to speak were Jack Healey, former Amnesty International Director, and Peter Ashdown, former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and civic leader.
Raising the money for the event, with help from readers of The Daily Kos, was not the most difficult challenge. That was reserved for locating a venue for the large attendance which they expected.
BYU officials promptly turned down their request for a hall. No alternative commencement on campus. The “BYU 25” then went to other educational institutions. A Middle School said yes then reversed its decision. The Superintendent of Schools for Provo’s public schools placed all the auditoriums off limits.
Finally, several miles from campus, in Orem, Utah, the students secured the large arena at Utah Valley State College. Over 1,200 people showed up, including students and faculty in their caps and gowns. It was a thoughtful and spirited gathering. They knew this was a historic marker for the BYU community.
What most of them did not know was the mettle and wisdom of the student leaders, whose ten days of hectic endeavors, made this unprecedented event a reality. They soon knew why. First, Eric Bybee, who will join Teach for America as a teacher in Harlem this fall, stood up and recounted in detail the hurdles and active obstacles which they overcame. He took three exams in one day.
Then came student organizer, Ashley Sanders, a humanities major. She said: “BYU should have to defend its decision to invite Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney should speak, but we should also be able to respond. When people have to give reasons for their opposition and reasons for their support of something, then we’re better people as a civic society.”
Cheney did speak briefly. He spent two thirds of his remarks praising BYU in a variety of ways from their “stone-cold sober” number one rating in the nation to their athletic teams. His comments were designed for applause. Then he offered some homilies about success in life. Then he was off to Air Force Two.
Over at Utah Valley State College, the BYU students were teaching their elders that a critical, humane mind is a difficult thing to silence.
After what they described as a very successful graduation that stressed alternatives, the student organizers held a party at an art gallery. They cooked a delicious and nutritious dinner for all. There was no alcohol imbibed, no tobacco smoked.
They had practiced their faith along with their academic learning and civic responsibilities.
RALPH NADER is the author of The Seventeen Traditions