May 19, 2023 | NEWS | By Lorea Zabaleta and Leigh Walden
Against a backdrop of national democratic peril and unrest, graduation speaker Liz Cheney addresses controversy over her selection as Commencement speaker and reflects on her time as a Colorado College student.
On March 15, 2023 President L. Song Richardson sent an email to the Colorado College community announcing that Liz Cheney, class of 1988 – who served as the Representative for the State of Wyoming in Congress from 2017-2023 following a career with the United States State Department – as this year’s Commencement speaker.
In the months since, The Catalyst has covered many angles of the issue, from initial reactions and actions such as a student band protest show, a poll in a large senior group chat, and the emergence of posters and fliers around campus detailing her past wrongdoings and how they contradict CC’s values. The paper has also covered President Richardson’s response to seniors questioning the decision, and published several opinion articles from a variety of perspectives.
In the time since President Richardson’s announcement, Cheney’s address has been high on the minds of members of the campus community, especially this year’s senior class. Now with Commencement fast approaching, The Catalyst sat down with Cheney to talk about her time at CC, its impact on her high-profile career in politics, and shed light on her perspective on her speech, both her own motivations and goals in addressing the senior class and on the controversy.
From the student side, now less than two weeks from the event, many are settling into their opinions on the address and considering their options on protesting following dialogues with and communications from the administration.
‘A Very Special Place’
For the former Congresswoman, the decision to speak at her alma mater’s commencement was “a really easy decision.” Not only was her experience at the college formative but the Cheney family has a multi-generational legacy with Colorado College. Besides former Congresswoman Cheney, her mother Lynne, her sister, Mary, and two of her daughters also attended Colorado College.
“The school has meant so much to me and my education,” Cheney said in a phone interview with The Catalyst last week, “It’s just a place that I love.”
Cheney looks back fondly on her time at CC as formative, particularly a venture grant to Kenya during her second year where she worked in relief camps which sparked her “interest in international development” and went to work for the United States Agency for International Development after graduation.
Cheney says her education at CC “began a lifelong interest in… foreign policy and development work.”
Cheney also worked for The Catalyst in her time at CC as both the News and Opinion section editors. At the time, the newsroom was in the basement of Cutler Hall, but Cheney nonetheless described it as a “wonderful” experience. Cheney also served as the Chairman of the Honor Council.
As a political science major, Cheney said she spent a lot of time in Palmer Hall and also “did a lot in the history department.” She said the Block Plan provided an “unparalleled” opportunity to deep dive into whatever a given Block’s subject was.
“We had such great opportunities for professors to come from other institutions and visit – my most memorable professors were certainly those in the political science department,” she said. One of the professors was Professor Timothy Fuller, who still teaches today in the department.
Fuller describes her as “an excellent student” who asked, “intelligent questions.” He said they’ve also kept in touch over the years and that Cheney has also spoken numerous times at CC within the political science department.
“What I would say about her, based on what I know about her, is that whatever she chooses to do, she does it because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. I think she’s an entirely honorable public servant in that respect,” Fuller said.
In late 2022, Cheney chaired the January 6 Committee investigating the insurrection at the US Capitol that took place the year before. Her self-proclaimed commitment to the constitution at the risk of her own professional peril has won her the respect of many. Still, at Colorado College, her homecoming might not be universally warm.
Following Cheney’s announcement as speaker, some students and wider CC community members signed onto a petition asking the administration to disinvite Cheney as speaker. This petition – alongside fliers pasted on walls and bathroom stalls on campus, GroupMe messages, and a protest live-music show – took aim at her voting record, involvement in conflict in the Middle East, and stance on climate change – things that some students could not reconcile with their own and what they see as the college’s values.
Helen Sweeney ’23, one of the students who started the Change.org petition, said “it seems so antithetical to everything that … the college says it believes in.”
“I believe Liz Cheney has the right to … go write an article and publish it wherever, speak somewhere, but at our graduation and our institution endorsing it is a completely separate thing,” she said.
In response to the controversy surrounding her selection as speaker, Cheney said “this Commencement is not a day about politics.”
Cheney said, “it’s fundamentally important, and as someone who over the last two years has really understood and recognized how important it is, that we put some things above politics.”
Cheney is referring to this moment in time where “our democracy is at a moment of real peril” following the events of January 6 and the “Big Lie” perpetuated by former President Trump that the 2020 election was not only fraudulent but also that something should be done about it.
Cheney’s decision to stand against party in recent years to protect democracy stands out as a reason for why she was invited to speak this year, alongside the other recognitions of her bravery such as the receiving the Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in 2022.
“At Colorado College, we encourage courageous conversations and bold actions… Representative Cheney is someone who has pursued courageous conversations and taken bold actions,” stated the initial email announcement from Richardson.
It also lends itself to some students who disagree with her on policy and are interested in hearing her speak. Yet, some who still maintain that they respect her do not believe this action justifies having her speak at CC’s Commencement.
“The vitriol is in some ways forgetful of the fact that many of those students actually admired her for what she was doing when she was serving on that commission, which shows you that political opinion is volatile,” said Fuller.
The college has done considerable work to hear the opinions of students and host an open forum of discussion. Since the announcement the administration has been continuously involved with hearing student perspectives and reacting to them and their implications.
One such opportunity came in the form of two dialogue sessions with President Richardson and members of Colorado College administration. President Richardson described her conversations with students as “impactful.” The first open dialogue, held on Thursday, April 20, only had four attendees but they “still had a great conversation,” Richardson said. The next dialogue the following day drew more students.
Given the strongly negative response, President Richardson hopes this is the last year that the commencement speaker decision happens this way. “We are now thinking about a different process for choosing our graduation speakers,” said President Richardson. What that process might look like is not yet clear.
Something else Richardson learned is that students who are “really excited to have her come here” are sometimes “worried about expressing that.”
One senior, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that, because the board voted on it and school saw fit to bring Cheney in, “why not just embrace it, whether it’s political, just knock that aside.”
“Commencement is a time to come together,” the senior said. “She’s not going to convince us of anything she believes in, doesn’t believe in… she’s here to motivate us… I’m sure there’s a lot of the student body that would love to make change and whether you agree with her or not, she has made change.”
“It’s not a political speech,” said Cheney of the address. “It’s not a speech where we’re talking about substantive differences of opinion. I think that… is not an appropriate thing at a commencement address.”
Cheney also said that while “it’s wonderful we’re having these debates and discussions… it’s important people recognize that we don’t get to have any of these debates if we don’t stand up for the fundamental structures of our constitutional republic.”
Some, however, take issue with presenting the decision as apolitical at all.
“Pretending anything is apolitical is naive,” said Sweeney.
“Some people have the privilege of not thinking about… her past actions and beliefs when they’re listening to her and they… can be inspired without thinking about those things, but not everyone has that privilege,” Sweeny said.
‘Freedom of Expression’
As rumblings of protest on the day of Commencement spread, Dean of Students Pedro de Araujo told The Catalyst that the administration decided to send the senior class an email on “freedom of expression” in addition to the instructions sent out to students every year for the event after hearing that some students wanted to be able to protest.
The email stated, “students who choose to protest disruptively may face code of conduct infractions and their transcripts may be held by a leadership committee.” In particular, the email established that any “external protests must stay on sidewalks” and that they “will not allow audience members to interrupt, shout down, or otherwise disrupt an event. It is also a violation to obstruct anyone’s view of the speaker with banners or placards.”
Sweeney said the email was “truly insulting.”
“We’ve heard this rhetoric around protests all the time,” Sweeny said. “I think that’s pretty ridiculous for the college to be saying, ‘we support you protesting but only under these certain conditions.’ It’s clear that they don’t understand what protesting is. Right? Like it’s not supposed to be upholding the system that … let this happen…it’s supposed to be rebelling against it.”
While the college’s Freedom of Expression guidelines are longstanding, The Catalyst confirmed with multiple graduates from previous years this was not an email sent to them in preparation for their commencement, and de Araujo has not sent a similar email in his time as dean of students.
“We felt like we needed to respond, the same way we would with any other protests,” de Araujo said. “What that means is explaining what is our policy… these are the types of things you could do under this particularly policy and of course, if you cross this particular line, then it would be possible for you to be sanctioned.”
“We support the right of every student to protest,” said de Araujo. “To a certain degree we hope they do it if that is something they would like to do.”
According to de Arujo, the goal of the email was not to shut down protesting but to make sure students understand “there are consequences while committing an act of civil disobedience.”
“What we are trying to do is to provide students with where that line [is] in terms of where the college would have to act…” he said. “[The message] we’re trying to send is actually not to say, you can’t protest. It’s actually the other way around… But I want you to make sure that you have a full understanding of what [might be] the potential consequences.”
Despite potential consequences, some students are still planning to protest. Though Cheney’s speech likely won’t be as political as her career.
‘Our democracy is in peril’ and ‘The Big Task’ for Upcoming Generations
When asked about the goal and intention of her speech more specifically, Cheney said it is two-fold, focusing on both celebrating the senior class and driving home the importance of political and civic participation in this moment.
Like attending CC, Cheney is also joining a family tradition of Commencement speakers. Both Cheney’s father and mother were also Commencement speakers in 1991 and 1987, respectively.
“I actually know a number of people who have spoken [at CC Commencement],” she said. “Over the years there have been a number of people… who’ve been memorable, and I hope to be one of them.”
Since leaving office, Cheney said she has had the chance to speak at a few college campuses. She said she is spending “a lot of time speaking to college students” because the “engagement of people who are in college today…is going to be crucial to making sure that we maintain our democracy and our constitutional structure.”
She said she has “been really inspired and very moved by young people.”
“I really hope to encourage and inspire people to run for office; to get engaged and involved at every level of public service and just convey to them how blessed we are to be able to participate and also how important it is and how much the country needs people who are graduating right now to help us ensure that we maintain the health of our democracy,” Cheney said.
She said the main message of her speech, alongside imparting the “real sense of accomplishment” of all that the graduating class has achieved and how exciting the “journey they’re about to embark on” is.
“I think she’s going to be an incredibly impactful speaker who has …given so much back to our CC community in terms of coming back and meeting with students and mentoring students,” said Richardson.
“Commencement is a day when we honor graduates,” Cheney said. “I look forward very much to being able to do my part to help inspire the graduating class, to thank their parents for everything they’ve done and … hopefully to help inspire the next generation of people to be involved and engaged in, in service to our country.”