May 5, 2023 | NEWS | By Charlotte Maley
On the last Friday of Block 7, students and staff alike gathered in the large conference room of Worner to discuss one very important topic: Liz Cheney. According to President L. Song Richardson, who hosted the assembly alongside other faculty, the controversy that exploded over having the former representative come speak at convocation was cause for an open discussion.
“I’ve had more conversations with students in these past two months than I have in two years of working here,” said Richardson.
In response to one of those sessions, Macie Aronsky ’23 said, “I feel like what’s neglected today is the ability to listen without the intention to change.”
Richardson went on to explain that she had received letters and participated in conversations with students on all sides of the issue, and what they all had in common was insistence. “One group wants her disinvited. Another wants her to come, badly. Both feel strongly,” said Richardson.
Richardson says, it is because of debate that such an open forum was needed, and why it wasn’t surprising that students showed up, willing to speak.
During the hour long, civil group discussion, why Cheney was chosen seemed to be the question for some. Many students expressed disbelief that CC would even consider Cheney as a speaker, explaining that they felt her past did not represent the school’s values.
Political Science major Helen Sweeney ‘23 said, “Having her here is disrespectful to the time and money that we’ve spent at this school.”
For many students, Cheney’s past as a neoconservative representative who’s participated in many movements antithetical to CC’s initiatives, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, due to Cheney’s opposition to same-sex marriage, make her both an incompatible and offensive person to invite on a day of celebration.
In response to these statements, President L. Song Richardson said, “We knew it would be a controversial choice. To be able to sit with discomfort. To admit mistakes. To have courage to stand up for democracy when so few are willing to do that. To be able to say I’m wrong. These are all purposes of a liberal arts education. This is why we invited her.”
As a former civil rights lawyer, President Richardson explained that it’s powerful to her when people change their mind about something. “I’m not here to defend her voting record… I just believe that people are better than the worst thing that they’ve ever done.”
For many students in attendance, this explanation wasn’t satisfying, and some expressed concern that Cheney hadn’t apologized or changed her mind on many issues. For example, her actions in contribution to the Iraq war were repeatedly brought up. For others, even actions that she had apologized for were not forgiven.
The common complaint was that Cheney had a voting record that personally hurt members of their own communities – in particular, queer communities. The former representative has famously voted against same-sex marriage, although, she later apologized and admitted a change on her position in 2021. This point, considering its role during the heated debate which occurred on the senior group chat last month, can be understood as a stain on Cheney’s voting record of particular concern to students.
In response to the discontent community members expressed over the perception that Liz Cheney could be resolved of her previous actions by doing one courageous act (standing up to Trump by leading the January 6 investigation committee ), professor Manya Whitaker explained why, as an educational psychologist, the former representative coming to speak at graduation was important to her.
“Changing your mind is domain by domain. Task by task. Expecting a completely different mind from someone is unrealistic,” said Whitaker, who added that Cheney’s courageous actions and willingness to admit fault made the former representative someone that embodies what she wants to foster as a liberal arts educator.
The president listened intently to students and their concerns and shared that the perspectives students brought to the table impacted her greatly. President Richardson revealed that, after spring break, she had met with the Cabinet and considered other options, including the possibility of disinviting Cheney. However, after giving it a great deal of thought, the Cabinet and the President ultimately decided to have her remain as speaker.
To this point, students expressed frustration. A few seniors added that graduation was a celebration, and not a time for difficult conversations. For some students of color and international students, this point was especially important.
“I’m first generation. I’m a woman, Black, and Filipino. I have hard conversations every day. It’s a harmful impact to [people of color] on this campus because it’s an everyday battle for us at this school” said Kiara Buttes ‘23 as she outlined the difficulties of being a person with a unique, and often ignored, perspective at CC.
According to Buttes, having these hard conversations that the administration wishes to promote is inherent to the experience of people of color at a primarily white institution. “It just feels like another pile on to what it means to be a minority on this campus. I just wanted to be relieved [at graduation],” said Buttes.
Buttes also expressed that it’s really difficult to invite family from backgrounds that have been targeted by Liz Cheney’s record, making them feel unwelcome.
Seniors at the talk expressed a desire for Cheney to come to CC in a speaker series, such as first Monday, where a dialogue could be had. However, convocation felt like an inappropriate venue.
One student questioned President Richardson’s defense of Cheney coming as a way of demonstrating the liberal arts value of brave conversations, arguing that at convocation, Cheney would be speaking at students and not with them.
In response, Richardson said, “Having courageous conversations doesn’t always include dialogue because you don’t always get that opportunity.”