May 19, 2023 | OPINION | By Saigopal Rangaraj
The adage “lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice” is often used to cheer people up when they’re down on their luck. However, with Colorado College’s administration inviting ex-Representative Elizabeth “Liz” Cheney to speak at the Class of 2023’s commencement ceremony – the third time someone with that last name has spoken at a CC commencement ceremony – we have proof that the lightning expression is indeed a myth.
Cheney will join both of her parents in having the opportunity to unsettle members of a graduating class as they attempt to celebrate the culmination of their college journeys. In fact, unsettled may actually be an understatement of how people are feeling.
Close to 200 people have signed a petition asking the college to disinvite her; 146 members of the Class of ’23 voted ‘no’ on a GroupMe poll that asked, “Should Liz Cheney speak at commencement?” compared to the 66 people who voted ‘yes’’ and over 100 people responded on CC’s social media handles (LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram), again mostly expressing disappointment at this decision.
In 1991, members of the graduating class protested Richard “Dick” Cheney’s position on the Gulf War and the needless suffering that war hawks like him caused in the region. In similar fashion, many students are up in arms about Liz Cheney’s invitation to CC. Members of the community are irked by CC’s opaque speaker selection process which had limited – if any – student input, as well as by Cheney’s problematic voting record on a myriad of issues.
In response to one of the many comments on social media, the official CC Facebook handle noted that “Liz Cheney was invited to be the Commencement speaker because she is a successful and prominent alum” and that “one of our institutional priorities is to encourage courageous conversations and bold actions.”
Prior to the invitation, CC celebrated Cheney’s decision to break with the Republican party and vote to impeach former President Donald J. Trump. The post attributes Cheney’s actions to her liberal arts education at CC.
I would be remiss not to highlight the fact that Cheney voted in line with Trump 93% of time. One major criticism that students have brought up is that Cheney openly criticized same-sex marriage in 2013 – creating a major and very public rift with her sister Mary. In 2021, Cheney publicly backtracked on her stance and said that she was wrong. Regardless of whether you consider her apology to be enough to look past this issue, Cheney’s voting record has no shortage of questionable decisions.
Some of the choices Cheney made in her political career include: supporting torture, voting against affordable healthcare, and pushing for international student departures during the pandemic. It would not be an overstatement to say that Cheney’s political rise made way for Trump’s divisive and destructive policies, many of which have directly harmed members of our community.
There are many reasons to be angry and protest Cheney’s presence on campus. Knowing this might be the case, the college sent out an email to all seniors titled “Freedom of Expression.” This email reiterated the college’s stance on protests and disruptive actions. However, the ambiguity in the language used by the email, such as: “students… may face code of conduct,” “transcripts may be held” and “attendees and graduates may be subject to search” breeds uncertainty amongst students who want to show their displeasure.
Cheney’s invitation and the college’s policies (described by some as a veiled email threat) place students in somewhat of a dilemma. If the student body participates in a business-as-usual commencement, we would be giving Cheney a pass for her actions and be complicit in the harm she has caused. On the other hand, if we protest in a palatable manner by following the guidelines laid out by the college, we reward the administration with increased visibility and media coverage.
This may even incentivize the inviting of more controversial speakers in the years to come. It seems like a lose-lose situation for disgruntled students who are forced to engage in “courageous conversations” on the administration’s terms.
For many in attendance, Cheney’s selection is a welcome reprieve and provides a space for discourse that many students fear expressing on campus. On the other hand, many others are repulsed by the thought of having to listen to Cheney for an agonizing 12 minutes.
While it is impossible to please everyone, the college has unfairly placed the burden of civility on dissenters by asking harmed community members to act respectfully in response to the pain caused by an extremely flawed process. Engaging in debate with people you disagree with should absolutely be the goal of the college; however, this commencement neither offers the space for debate, nor a space for jubilance for most of my peers in the class of ’23.
The only avenue of hope I can offer is in the power of collective action. Protests are inherently displays of discontent; however, they can also be vehicles for change. It is important to use our collective voice to push both CC and Cheney to engage in remediation measures.
From the college, we need a clear process in place which places diverse student voices at the table when deciding upon future commencement speakers. For Cheney, remediation would be to get her to invest her money and resources where her mouth is – whether that is through donating to local LGBTQ+ or migrant communities, or through endorsing candidates who are working to right her historical wrongs. Pushing for tangible change and investment is the only way to begin to fix CC’s mistake.
Disclaimer: Protesting at commencement is a choice that every senior has; and while I disagree with Cheney’s speaking, I cannot endorse any action that takes away from another student’s graduation. Deciding to protest is an individual decision/sacrifice that each student must come to terms with. CC’s pathfinder outlines student rights to participate in the “free exchange of ideas”. CC’s policies on freedom of expression further note that “It is a violation of college policy to interrupt, shout down, or otherwise disrupt an event. It is also a violation to obstruct the view of the speaker with banners or placards” and that non-compliance may result in “disciplinary action or other sanctions according to Student Honor and Community Standards and college handbooks”.
The ceremony is for the friends and families of the graduates, not just the student body at large. Ms. Cheney’s sins against humanity are no secret. It seems like the protests should be against the administration’s lack of transparency. Disrupting the ceremony won’t change that. Haven’t you learned any negotiation or communication skills during four years of college beyond shouting, waving signs, and general disruptions? Take a class in Conflict Resolution.