OPINION – Southern Utah University has long proclaimed its motto: “Learning lives forever.”
It’s a noble ideal, one that should take hold within those who believe that the process of growth and education should never end.
Unfortunately, it seems, not much has been learned by the community SUU serves.
A group of residents has politicized the university, raising $40,000 to remove Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s name from the SUU Outdoor Engagement Center.
Cedar City Councilman Paul Cozzens and Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller helped spearhead the effort.
They don’t like his politics and even though Reid is the most noteworthy of SUU graduates, they don’t like his name displayed on one of the university buildings.
I lived in Iron County for 10 years, so I am not surprised. I know the political climate there. It still doesn’t relieve my disappointment in an institution that is supposed to be dedicated to higher learning, which boils down to looking at issues from more than one perspective.
In fact, on its website, SUU claims that community and social responsibility is one of its core themes, saying: “Essential to the educational process is a sense of an academic community wherein collaboration, diversity, respect for all people, concern for the environment, civility, and shared governance are cultivated.
“Faculty, staff, and alumni model these values as they contribute to and serve as stewards of the community’s shared resources.
“SUU encourages the discussion and exploration of differing views while recognizing the cherished individual freedom to reach one’s own conclusions.
“Developing students into productive responsible citizens involves the thoughtful exploration and application of ethics and values and the acknowledgment of the responsibilities one has locally and globally.”
This decision, laid down by SUU President Scott L. Wyatt, in no way reflects the desire to “encourage the discussion and exploration of differing views while recognizing the cherished individual freedom to reach one’s own conclusions.”
It shows shallow leadership that is based on monetary merits rather than the broadening of a young student’s perspectives. Of course, if you read any of the biographical material related to Wyatt, you quickly see that he has a knack for fundraising. To his credit, Wyatt did not accept the $40,000. He didn’t have to, because, quite frankly, the money spoke for itself. It told him that if he wanted to tap friendly resources in the future, he’d better toe the line.
He then tried shuffling the deck again, dealing out some spin about how it was “confusing” anyway because nobody associated Reid’s name with the outdoors even though the Senator has been heavily involved in legislation geared towards environmentalism, public lands, and national parks.
The waffling raises questions about Wyatt’s leadership abilities. If this decision is any indication, it appears that SUU will continue the dearth of leadership that followed the retirement of Gerald R. Sherratt, who served from 1982 until 1997.
Make no mistake, Sherratt knew how to put the arm on donors. During his tenure, 16 new buildings were erected on the SUU campus.
However, the school’s reputation grew along with its architecture as it went from an enrollment of 1,800 to more than 5,500 students, attained university status, became a Division I competitor in NCAA sports, and became the home of the Utah Summer Games.
Sherratt’s devotion to the university was unmatched and his dedication to its advancement was the force that propelled SUU. Unfortunately, that drive and passion have been lacking in his successors.
Steve Bennion came in on a legacy pass because his grandfather was SUU’s first president.
Michael T. Benson was a money machine, raising more than $90 million for the university during his presidency.
Wyatt’s primary objective should be in recharging declining enrollment instead of playing the puppet to manipulative conservatives who are tarnishing SUU’s reputation with their one-sidedness.
You see, among the numerous names emblazoned on SUU’s buildings and programs are those of Dixie Leavitt, a longtime figure in the Utah Legislature, and his son, Michael O. Leavitt, who went on to become Utah governor before taking cabinet positions during the George W. Bush administration. There are those who, although small in number, do not particularly align themselves with either Leavitt. However, there has been no movement to disengage either of them from the university, and rightly so because they both went on to highly successful careers that add credibility to the university’s programs, just as Reid does.
But because of their hardcore partisanship, Cozzens and Miller don’t want any part of that legacy, even when it could help grow diversity on a lily-white, GOP-centric campus.
A university is supposed to be a place where philosophical, cultural, divergent positions are discussed, diagnosed, evaluated. It does not succeed unless it offers an often contrary stance, a challenge. That’s why it is just as important to study Marx, Lenin, Che, and Mao as it is to study Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Hancock.
By allowing himself to be bullied by a lynch mob that uses money instead of the rope to intimidate, Wyatt is violating that principle.
As a newsman, I have had the occasion to interview Harry Reid. As an analyst and columnist, I have had occasion to write about him. I admit that I am not overly impressed on a number of levels. But, in all honesty, I have not been impressed by many politicians, regardless of their affiliation.
Still, like him or not, Reid has risen from humble beginnings to a powerful, prestigious position and it is just as wrong to detach his name from the campus at SUU as it would be if the University of Wyoming severed ties with its most prominent grad, Dick Cheney.
There was a time when I had high hopes for SUU, but somehow, its commitment to diversity and intellectual stimulation was hijacked.
Bold instructors who challenged young minds suddenly went silent for fear of censure from the president’s office. Some left, some still hang on until a better gig comes along.
It’s, of course, the students who suffer when there is political interference with our education system.
We need more inquisitive, challenging minds to lead succeeding generations, not little Stepford Students, walking a political treadmill that goes nowhere.
SUU was correct when it strove to reinforce its motto, “Learning lives forever.”
Unfortunately, learning seems to be on its death bed and will remain so as long as the university involves itself in petty little political games.
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Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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