Students Protest University’s Decision To Invite Glenn Youngkin to Give Commencement Address

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By Carolyn Fiddler

March 31, 2023

Students at George Mason University are protesting the school’s decision to invite Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony in May. Hundreds of students have engaged in protests and thousands have signed a petition calling for the school to rescind the invitation.

STORY: Graduation ceremonies are supposed to–at best–be happy events highlighting the achievements of students receiving their diplomas. At worst, they’re boring affairs endured for the benefit of those students’ friends and family. But George Mason University’s commencement is on track to be neither happy nor boring in the wake of the school’s decision to invite Gov. Glenn Youngkin to speak at May’s graduation.

University President Gregory Washington recently announced that Youngkin had been invited to  speak at the May 18 ceremony, citing the governor’s “drive for lifelong learning and his entrepreneurial mindset.”

Many George Mason students did not share the school president’s enthusiasm for having Youngkin speak at one of the most important milestone events in their lives. 

Days after the commencement announcement, a GMU senior launched a petition calling for university leadership “to take appropriate action to ensure Governor Youngkin does not attend or speak at the Spring 2023 Commencement Ceremony.” The petition specifically cites Youngkin’s record as governor, noting that in his first two years in office, he has supported anti-transgender policies and legislation, “promoted the abolishment of racial equity curricula,” and “restricted the availability of literature in public schools” that reflects the experiences of historically marginalized communities.” 

“George Mason University prides itself on being one of ‘the most diverse institutions in the Commonwealth,’” wrote George Mason student Alaina Ruffin. “Yet by having Governor Youngkin as this year’s Commencement speaker, we believe that the University compromises its supposed values of centering students’ experiences and overall well-being.”

As of this writing, Ruffin’s petition has over 7,000 signatures.

GMU is, in fact, the largest and most diverse public institution of higher learning in Virginia – and the seventh most diverse public university in the entire country. Many George Mason students, including the student body president, are expressing their concern over and opposition to Youngkin’s involvement in their graduation ceremony. Earlier this week, about 100 students gathered to vocally protest the university’s decision.

George Mason’s president responded by effectively doubling down on the invitation, scolding students for attempting to silence a voice of a governor they disagree with, “especially in this forum where there is no imminent threat present as a result of the disagreements.” 

Youngkin, of course, faces no actual threat of being silenced, and that a commencement address is the centerpiece of one of the most important events in a person’s life, not a forum for the discussion of ideas or an opportunity for Youngkin to “hear their opinions [and] respectfully consider and reflect on them.”

The university’s insistence that Youngkin speak at this year’s commencement ceremony occurs in the shadow of ongoing budget negotiations in the General Assembly–a budget that the governor must approve and that GMU is hoping will deliver over $60 million in new funding.

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.

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