SUU’s Mormon-themed ad campaign raises questions

Southern Utah University’s recent ad campaign frames its Cedar City campus as a place that supports Mormon cultural values, raising questions about whether a public school should play on faith to recruit students.

In recent years, SUU has burnished its image as a traditional liberal arts and sciences college providing private school-caliber baccalaureate education for the price of public-school tuition. The small Cedar City school markets heavily in the urban Wasatch Front, often featuring women and people of color on billboards on the sides of buses.

Dean O’Driscoll, SUU’s vice president for university relations, said the Mormon-themed campaign supports this broader message, portraying SUU as an intimate campus where students enjoy close attention from full-time faculty. SUU spent $12,000 on six ads in April and May portraying it as an ideal setting to prepare for a mission — the two-year proselytizing tour of duty many college-age Mormons serve — in the Deseret News’ “Mormon Times” section.

But as a legal matter, publicly-supported institutions ought to steer clear of favoring one religion, race or gender over others, except to address the continuing effects of past discrimination, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Noting that Latter-day Saints have enjoyed a favored status in Utah, he found the SUU ad “troublesome” and recommended the state’s public schools avoid religious pitches without commensurate efforts to recruit Baptists, Catholics and members of other non-Mormon faiths.

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