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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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Colorado College alum Liz Cheney delivers commencement speech; graduates turn chairs away from stage in protest


More than 450 Colorado College students, many of whom were forced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic just a few months after beginning college, celebrated their accomplishments during Sunday’s commencement ceremony at Ed Robson Arena.

But the event was marked by a group protest of this year’s commencement speaker, CC alumna Liz Cheney, just minutes after President L. Song Richardson had congratulated the class on its collective affinity for open-mindedness and critical thinking.

“The liberal arts education that you received here, both inside the classroom and outside, has taught you how to think,” Richardson said before introducing Cheney. “It’s taught you how to think critically, to welcome different perspectives, to see and understand different viewpoints, to challenge and debate each other and the ideas with which you may disagree.”

When Cheney was introduced — mostly to applause — about half the graduates turned their chairs 180 degrees and sat with their backs to the former Wyoming congresswoman for the entirety of her speech.

Cheney, who graduated from CC in 1988, began by speaking of her longstanding family ties to the college. Her mother, former Second Lady Lynne Cheney, is a CC alum, as is her husband, Philip Perry, and two of their five children.

She also credited the college as one of the institutions that imbued in her a strong sense of right and wrong.

“It was here that I first began to think deeply about the rule of law, and about what it means to live in a nation of laws,” said Cheney, who studied political science at CC.

The words inscribed above the entrance to Palmer Hall — “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” — have stuck with Cheney in the decades following her graduation, she said.

“After the 2020 election, and the attack of Jan. 6, my fellow Republicans wanted me to lie,” Cheney said. “They wanted me to say that the 2020 election was stolen, that the attack of Jan. 6 wasn’t a big deal, and that Donald Trump wasn’t dangerous. I had to choose between lying and losing my position in House leadership.”

When Cheney accepted then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offer to serve as the vice chair of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, she did so with the knowledge that it could damage, or even end, her political career. The investigation framed Cheney as former President Donald Trump’s fiercest Republican adversary and likely contributed to her defeat in the Wyoming Republican primary election in August 2022.

In her commencement speech, Cheney encouraged the Class of 2023 to stand up for what they believe in, even when it’s difficult.

“You may find yourself confronting challenges that you could not have imagined, with very few allies by your side,” she said. “And this morning I want to tell you a secret: When the path ahead is obscure and unclear, you can find your way by resolving to do the next right thing. Resolve to do what is right, even when it’s hard, you’re alone, even when you’re afraid — especially when you’re afraid.”

Cheney concluded her speech by encouraging the graduates to engage in their communities by showing up at the voting booth and fostering respectful political discourse. She also implored the women in the audience to consider running for office.

“This country needs more of you in office,” she said. “You may have noticed that men are pretty much running things these days, and it’s not going all that well. You can change that.

“It’s been said that the long arc of history bends towards justice and freedom. And that’s true, but only if we bend it.”

After Cheney’s speech, the graduates returned their chairs to their original positions and applauded as honorary degrees were granted to former acting co-President Mike Edmonds, retiring administrator Robert Moore, and mathematician and historian Robin Wilson. Hilaree Janet Nelson, a CC graduate who died skiing in the Himalayas in September, was posthumously honored.

Graduates who turned their backs to Cheney said they did so because of her conservative positions on abortion, LGBTQ+ issues and voting rights.

“She stood up to Trump, and that was commendable,” said a graduate who declined to give her name. “But that doesn’t change her voting record, or her stance on what I consider to be basic human rights.”

Most graduates preferred to talk about the overall excitement of the day.

“This is a great day, and I’m proud of everything we accomplished,” said Meredith Kuster, a native of Pelham, N.Y. “We had a very unique experience with the pandemic, and I think we’ve bonded through those challenges and pushed each other to become our best selves.”

“It was a whirlwind, certainly, and it was challenging with the pandemic, but it really taught me to learn to adapt and face challenges,” Fer Juarez said of his CC experience. “That’s what I will remember most about Colorado College.”