Rare Protests at Brigham Young Over a Planned Cheney Appearance
Students at Brigham Young University protesting an invitation to Vice President Dick Cheney to speak at commencement on April 26.
PROVO, Utah, April 10 — The invitation extended to Vice President Dick Cheney to be the commencement speaker at Brigham Young University has set off a rare, continuing protest at the Mormon university, one of the nation’s most conservative.
Some of the faculty and the 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who are overwhelmingly Republican, have expressed concern about the Bush administration’s support for the war in Iraq and other policies, but most of the current protest has focused on Mr. Cheney’s integrity, character and behavior. Several students said, for example, that they were appalled at Mr. Cheney’s use of an expletive on the Senate floor in a June 2004 exchange with Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
“The problem is this is a morally dubious man,” said Andrew Christensen, a 22-year-old Republican from Salt Lake City. “It’s challenging the morality and integrity of this institution.”
Students and faculty at Brigham Young — a private university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — are expected to adhere to an honor code, which emphasizes “being honest, living a chaste and virtuous life, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, using clean language” and following church doctrines. They are also required to follow strict modesty guidelines for grooming and attire.
In the two weeks since the university announced that Mr. Cheney would be the speaker at the commencement on April 26, hundreds of students have attended respectful and quiet campus demonstrations about his presence, and some 3,600 students and alumni had signed petitions by Tuesday afternoon seeking a “more appropriate” replacement speaker.
Warner P. Woodworth, 65, an independent and a professor at the university’s Marriott School of Management, questioned Mr. Cheney’s assertions about Al Qaeda’s ties to the government of Saddam Hussein and his involvement in disclosing the identity of Valerie Wilson, a covert officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, which led to the conviction of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Mr. Cheney’s former chief of staff.
“It just feels like too much sleaze and not the right values for B.Y.U.,” Mr. Woodworth said. “We espouse honesty, chastity, integrity, ethics, virtue and morality, and he does not epitomize those values.”
Several students said they would welcome Mr. Cheney on campus at a forum where he could be questioned. “I just don’t feel that Cheney represents what we want B.Y.U. to represent,” said Sharon Ellsworth, 23, a junior and a Democrat from Marietta, Pa. “It would be cool to have him in a different setting.”
Some students said they were looking forward to Mr. Cheney’s speech. David Lassen, 23, the chairman of the B.Y.U. College Republicans, said he hoped to present the vice president with petitions of support for his appearance on campus, signed by about 2,000 students and alumni.
“We’re excited for the world to see what B.Y.U. really is,” Mr. Lassen said. “No matter what you think of Cheney, he’s easily the most powerful man in the world.”
Mr. Lassen also said the debate about Mr. Cheney’s speech proves that, despite its reputation, Brigham Young “is a place for minority voices and healthy political discourse.”
Mr. Cheney’s deputy press secretary, Megan McGinn, said Tuesday that the address would not be a “political speech.”
“The vice president is looking forward to attending the graduation ceremony at Brigham Young,” she said.
Early this year, the White House asked university administrators for a chance to speak at the graduation, a Brigham Young spokeswoman, Carri Jenkins, said. The church’s president and prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, and his two top counselors, “in their capacity as members of the board of trustees” of Brigham Young, then extended an invitation to Mr. Cheney, Ms. Jenkins said.
She emphasized that neither the university nor the church viewed the invitation as an endorsement of Bush administration policies or the Republican Party. And most students said that despite their concerns, they respected the authority of university and church leaders.
Here in Utah County, 85 percent of voters supported the Bush-Cheney ticket in 2004, a higher percentage than the rest of the state. Those opposed to Mr. Cheney, Mr. Lassen added, represent Democrats and a small number of Republicans, and the university remains a firmly conservative place.
Currently, 49 percent of voters in Utah are Republican and 18 percent Democrats, with the rest independents or divided among minor parties. That represents a six-percentage-point decline for Republicans since January, based on telephone surveys conducted by Dan Jones, a political science professor at the University of Utah and president of a polling firm that began measuring public opinion in Utah in 1960.
The surveys also show that Mr. Cheney’s stature among Utah Republicans has declined in recent months and that more Republicans are identifying themselves as independents, Mr. Jones said.
Many students who oppose the invitation to Mr. Cheney describe Brigham Young’s commencement as not just a ceremony but also a religious service, which in the past often featured top church leaders who shared spiritual messages.
Tricia Campbell, 21, a senior from Orem who is a Republican, said Mr. Cheney’s behavior in office “just doesn’t fit” with what she had learned from the university’s mission of promoting of “integrity, character and moral development.”
“I thought commencement would be a spiritual, uplifting exercise in which I could take advice from someone I held in the highest esteem,” Ms. Campbell said. “It seems that was an extremely idealistic notion.”