Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivered a commencement speech at George Mason University in which some students protested his appearance after failed attempts ahead of the event to replace him as speaker.
When Youngkin walked up to the podium to deliver his remarks on Thursday in front of the university’s graduating class, students largely applauded the governor, although boos could be heard as well.
Most students did not put on a public demonstration opposing Youngkin, but the ones who did turn their backs on the governor, raised signs that read, ‘Mason Demands Action’ or walked out on the speech.
‘I think it feels very empowering,’ Jason Motley, a graduating student who walked out, told WUSA9. ‘I think whatever person he may be, his political views just don’t align with the betterment of this university.’
The demonstration comes after students in March attempted to pressure George Mason President Greg Washington to prohibit Youngkin from attending the commencement ceremony. A petition was launched demanding he be uninvited over his administration’s policies on transgender issues and controversial school curriculum. The petition received 8,000 signatures.
‘His beliefs don’t align with the university and a lot of beliefs in this institution,’ student Dunni Oni told the outlet. ‘My big thing is ensuring that Mason students at large feel safe, heard and protected, and he does not ensure that.’
The Youngkin administration’s proposals have included prohibiting transgender students from using bathrooms or participating on sports teams that do not correspond with their biological sex and banning critical race theory and sexually explicit books in schools.
The university’s student government and a few other student groups had released statements opposing Youngkin as commencement speaker. A protest of about 100 students took place demanding the governor be replaced as the speaker.
Still, Washington stood by the university’s decision to host Youngkin at EagleBank Arena on May 18.
‘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 said in a statement on March 27. ‘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.’
George Mason handed out nearly 11,000 degrees and certificates on Thursday. The 2023 class has been described as the largest and most diverse across the Commonwealth.
Joe Szymanski of the university’s College Republicans, who walked across the stage on Thursday, said the group of protesters was small and do not represent the entire graduating class.
‘It wasn’t very big, and I think most of our university as I expected was there and sat and listened to the governor give his speech,’ he told WUSA9. ‘We have a lot of people who scream and shout and that gets them the most attention, but that’s not in general how people work and that’s not how our society works.’
Youngkin became the latest sitting Virginia governor to give a commencement speech at George Mason, joining former governors Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe.
‘The governor celebrated the largest graduating class in the history of George Mason University, their stories, and diversity of thought in the Commonwealth,’ a spokesperson for Youngkin’s office told WUSA9. ‘The governor will continue to deliver for Virginia, preserve and protect free speech, and praise the many accomplishments of GMU grads.’