PROVO — Air Force Two will deliver the vice president of the United States to Utah this afternoon, when Dick Cheney will speak to more than 20,000 people during commencement exercises at Brigham Young University.
BYU will award Cheney an honorary doctorate of public service during ceremonies that begin at 4 p.m. Cheney will arrive in Salt Lake City shortly before 2 p.m. and will meet with the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City at 2:30 p.m.
The First Presidency invited Cheney to BYU in January after the White House indicated he would be willing to speak at commencement. BYU had invited President Bush in 2006, but his schedule didn't allow Bush to accept.
In its invitation to Cheney, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley and counselors President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust wrote, "Along with BYU graduates, their parents and the faculty and staff, we would be honored to welcome you on this special occasion and to hear your commencement address."
The vice president's visit is expected to be popular with the majority of graduates, their family members, faculty and staff. More than 1,000 people signed an online petition supporting Cheney's visit.
Opposition to the visit is drawing national media attention because Utah Valley is a conservative stronghold where Republicans and unaffiliated registered voters who generally vote Republican outnumbered Democrats 21-to-1 at the November 2006 elections.
At least three demonstrations taking issue with Cheney are planned today in Provo and Salt Lake City, and a student-organized alternative commencement featuring Ralph Nader will be held at Utah Valley State College at 7:30 p.m.
Nearly 4,000 people signed an online petition asking BYU and the church to withdraw the invitation to Cheney. The organizers of that petition said Wednesday they will present their list to the LDS Church's Public Affairs Department next week.
The announcement that BYU would award Cheney an honorary doctorate caused an additional stir on Wednesday, with some faculty and students who oppose the vice president's politics and policies. Some said the degree adds a measure of endorsement for Cheney that made them uncomfortable and that BYU was wise not to announce the degree until late Tuesday.
"One does wonder what message BYU intends to send with this," political science professor Darren Hawkins said. "Honorary degrees are sometimes conferred by universities to proclaim their approval of the honoree's character and qualities, and if that's what BYU intends to do, I disagree wholeheartedly with the award of an honorary degree. I don't think BYU should be commending Vice President Cheney's character or actions to anyone.
"If they intend to acknowledge his long public service, then I have less of a problem with it because it is certainly true he has risen to a high office and has a long career of public service."
BYU and LDS Church spokesman maintained the school and church are politically neutral.
The Cheney invitation is a departure from the most recent practice at BYU. The university holds graduation ceremonies twice a year, in April and August, and all eight of the commencement speakers in the past four years have been LDS Church leaders.
Also, BYU has awarded just one honorary degree since 2003, an honorary doctorate of Christian service bestowed on former BYU President Merrill Bateman last year.
The last time the university awarded the honorary public service degree it is giving Cheney was in 2001, when it granted the honor to Kim Clark, then the dean of faculty at Harvard University and now the president of BYU-Idaho, and to John Gallivan, former publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune.
The first to earn the public service honor from BYU was Elder Ezra Taft Benson, an LDS church leader who was serving in 1955 as the U.S. secretary of Agriculture. He later was church president from 1985-94.
Others awarded the honorary public service doctorate in BYU's history include U.S. Secretary of Education T. H. Bell (1984), U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek (1995) and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1996).
The organizers of the group that collected 3,811 names on its petition to "Oppose Vice President Dick Cheney's BYU Commencement Speech" said they plan to make their visit with church staffers a positive one.
"We don't want to tell (the church or BYU) what they should or should not do ... but we wanted to give ideas, really to just communicate why we thought the (invitation) was inappropriate," said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, one of the petition writers. "I hope it shows ... that it would be great to see more political balance at BYU."
The pro-Cheney petition was sponsored by the BYU College Republicans. It had 1,052 signers by Wednesday afternoon.
"This petition is a powerful declaration of support for the current BYU administration and board of trustees, including their decision to invite the vice president of the United States to speak at spring commencement ceremonies," the petition read.