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Philanthropist Lynette Nielsen Gay will resign from the World Congress of Families amid backlash to her being selected to receive an honorary degree from the University of Utah.
Gay serves on the board of directors for World Congress of Families, a traditional family advocacy organization listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its efforts to restrict the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
In a prepared statement on Monday, Gay described herself and her husband as "staunch" supporters of personal freedom and rights for all individuals.
"While we believe the World Congress of Families has been a vehicle for doing good for families throughout the world," she said, "and I joined the board only in keeping with my aim to improve the circumstances of all types of families and to make a difference in the lives of at-risk children, I do not want my personal values to be misinterpreted."
U. President David Pershing said Gay, like all of this year's honorary degree recipients, was selected by a subcommittee of the university's board of trustees based on nominations from faculty and community members.
He said the committee members were impressed by Gay's philanthropic efforts, including the creation of a public health college in Africa that partners with the U., and were unaware of her affiliation with World Congress of Families and an informal role with Family Watch International, also listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"They didn't know that because none of us knew that," Pershing said.
When the university administration learned about Gay's involvement with those groups, Pershing said, World Congress of Families and Family Watch International were removed from Gay's biography materials on the U.'s website.
Pershing apologized to Academic Senate members for the way the biography was revised, which led some to believe the administration was hiding Gay's connection to anti-LGBT advocacy efforts.
"We were not trying to do that," Pershing said. "I just didn't think it was a good idea to have those organizations on our website because they're not consistent with who we are."
The campus group Students for a Democratic Society plans to protest Gay during commencement ceremonies Thursday. A Facebook event page for the protest encourages graduates and commencement guests to turn their backs while Gay receives her honorary degree.
Pershing said he has met with student groups and faculty angered by Gay's selection as an honorary-degree recipient. It is unfortunate, he said, that the controversy has marred what would otherwise be the celebratory end of an academic year.
"I'm so sorry," he said. "We did not know, but it doesn't make it better."
Following Gay's announcement, the Academic Senate passed a resolution calling for a review of how honorary degree recipients are selected.
The resolution included suggestions that a vetting committee review finalists, and that honorees be subject to approval by the Academic Senate.
The Academic Senate also considered a resolution condemning World Congress of Families, but was unable to take formal action due to an insufficient number of voting members present at the end of the meeting.
"I'm actually surprised and really pleased that the outcome is a statement of resignation from the organization," said William Johnson, president of the Academic Senate.