A Divisive Governor Hits the Commencement Circuit. For Some Students, He’s Not Welcome.

It’s not unusual for politicians to speak at public colleges’ graduation ceremonies. But this year, one governor’s controversial education policies have drawn protests and petitions from students decrying how an event meant to be celebratory turned hurtful.

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican Virginia governor who made the culture war central to his 2022 election campaign, is slated to speak at George Mason University on Thursday. Earlier this month, he delivered an address at Old Dominion University’s commencement.

At both public institutions, students circulated petitions that collected thousands of signatures. In each case, the petitions took aim at the administrations and asked them to reconsider their decisions to invite Youngkin.

The events showcase a now-familiar dynamic. Colleges boast of the welcoming environments they strive to provide for students, but their autonomy is being threatened by some Republican lawmakers who have targeted diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and even exerted control over curricula. Such lawmakers aren’t guaranteed a warm welcome on campus, and colleges are left to manage sensitive relationships with the state and their students.

Youngkin’s education policies have mostly applied to elementary and secondary schools. When the governor took office in January 2022, he signed an order prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory, the academic concept that racism is the product of not only individual prejudice but also embedded in legal systems and policies. Since then, he has ordered K-12 schools to only allow students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms, and sign up for sports teams, that correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth. Students said they worry it’s just a matter of time before such policies will be extended to higher education.

“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,” reads the GMU petition, which had more than 8,000 signatures on Tuesday evening. “When satiating its own desire to appease the powerful few, the university, once again, has abandoned these principles.”

The Old Dominion petition, with its over 3,000 signatures, was even more pointed: “It is an absolute disgrace that ODU’s president, Brian O. Hemphill, would allow such a disgusting man to speak at this commencement ceremony.”

Creating channels for student feedback can lead to more inclusive decision making.

In an emailed statement, Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for Youngkin, said, “Governor Youngkin congratulated ODU students as they embark on their next chapters. Now, the governor looks forward to addressing the 2023 graduates of George Mason University and celebrating their tremendous accomplishment.”

The leaders of both institutions have sought to welcome the governor while also assuring students that they hear them. They noted that their universities have traditions of hosting Virginia governors for commencement. But their approaches differed.

Gregory Washington, the George Mason president, wrote a nearly 900-word letter to the university community that was published five days after the announcement that Youngkin would speak at spring commencement.

“As president of the largest and most diverse public university in our state, I support those students who are making their voices heard, and I applaud their courage and commitment to advocate for themselves and their communities,” Washington wrote. “That being said, I don’t believe that we should silence the voices of those with whom we disagree, especially in this forum where there is no imminent threat present as a result of the disagreements.”

That week about 100 students protested at George Mason, according to local news reports.

Hemphill has not said as much publicly as Washington has about the governor’s visit. In response to questions from The Chronicle, he wrote in an email that “ODU is committed to fostering an environment for the meaningful expression of ideas.”

The president said he met with student leaders ahead of the announcement that Youngkin would be the speaker. “It was important to us that they felt their concerns were heard,” he said. “Creating channels for student feedback can lead to more inclusive decision making and help address concerns effectively.”

One student, who asked to remain anonymous because she worried about retaliation, said she had received an emailed invitation for a 15-minute “year-end discussion” with Hemphill. The meeting took place the following day.

The invitation was a surprise. “President Hemphill is not somebody you can just meet with,” the student said.

At the meeting, the student said Hemphill told her the governor would be the commencement speaker and acknowledged that Youngkin had said things that angered certain communities. While he did not say that protesting would be discouraged, he told the student that “we want to welcome him,” she said.

That meeting was the first in a series of incidents that some Old Dominion students interpreted as intimidation tactics meant to discourage them from protesting during the governor’s appearance. Several students who spoke to The Chronicle on the condition of anonymity had encounters with the campus police. A high-school student who, alongside his brother, an Old Dominion student, held up a banner that said “Blood on your hands,” was temporarily banned from campus.

The four students who spoke to The Chronicle said they did not want to jeopardize anyone’s chance of walking across the stage and earning their diploma. So a small group met with administrators to learn what kind of protest would be permitted by the university. Officials told them that they could protest as long as it was not “disruptive” and did not stop Youngkin from being able to speak.

The students put up posters around campus, wrote chalk messages on the sidewalk, circulated the petition, and painted a campus rock that’s often used to share messages. They spread the word that if other students wanted to protest Youngkin at commencement, they should stand and turn their backs to him when he spoke.

On the morning of the speech, a few students got to campus early. One student was surprised to see that the fliers they’d put up using wheat paste had already been taken down. The rock had been painted over with a pro-Youngkin message earlier in the week.

As families and graduates filed into S.B. Ballard Stadium, the students handed out new fliers and rainbow pride flags. Campus police officers stayed close, the students said. Some students saw someone whose face was covered approach the rock and repaint it with an anti-Youngkin profanity. None of the students who spoke to The Chronicle knew who it was, or that it was going to happen.

But the police seemed to take notice. They questioned the students and pulled one aside, telling him that he was a “person of interest,” a student said. After about 20 minutes, they let him go, but some of the students felt intimidated.

“It was kind of hard to hand out posters when the police are standing there kind of menacingly,” one student said.

Inside the stadium, Youngkin spoke to about 2,000 graduates. Many held up their pride flags. About 100 turned their backs on the governor, Hemphill said in his email.

It was kind of hard to hand out posters when the police are standing there kind of menacingly.

“We were aware that some students intended to protest,” he wrote to The Chronicle. “Trusting students to act responsibly during their protest not only affirms their rights to express themselves, but also empowers them to actively participate in shaping their educational community. With students having the opportunity to engage in meaningful activism, while respecting the importance of the occasion, ODU promoted a culture of civic engagement and active citizenship.”

One student, his younger brother, and a third student, took the “Blood on your hands” banner to the top floor of a garage that overlooks the stadium. When the governor’s speech began, they unfurled the banner.

The police were on the top of the parking garage within three minutes, one of those students said.

“I was pretty anxious, pretty on edge,” he said. “I just kept my eyes forward pretty much, tried to ignore them as much as possible.”

He engaged in a tug of war over the banner with an officer, he said. Eventually, though, he gave in and took it down. The officers took his name and told him to leave. He was trespassing, they said.

Police questioned the student’s brother as he was trying to leave. They told him that because he was “trespassing,” he was banned from campus unless and until he enrolls as a student there. The third student said he was questioned further by police officers when he reached the bottom of the parking lot.

“The situation in question involved two individuals hanging a large sign from the parking garage adjacent to our stadium, which violated the no-sign requirement, blocked a walkway, and was a safety hazard,” Hemphill said in his email to The Chronicle. “In response, they were asked to remove the sign and leave the facility — an action which would have taken regardless of the content of the sign. The non-ODU-affiliated young man was not permanently banned from campus. We are not aware of any other concerns about police interactions.”

Students had designated space to protest next to the stadium, Hemphill said. Noting the importance of free expression, he said the protesters were respected and the police were not directed to engage with them.

These students said the administration’s case for the freedom of speech seemed to apply only to the governor and his right to take the stage uninterrupted, not to their right to object to him.

One ODU student, who is trans, said that having Youngkin speak at graduation transformed the event from a happy one to one that served as a reminder that “there are people out there who want us dead or want us to not have access to the care that we need.”

He watched the speech from the audience because his girlfriend was graduating.

“It’s supposed to be a time of pride for her,” he said.

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