George Mason University

George Mason University Students Petition Against Youngkin as Commencement Speaker

By Monday at noon, it had gathered over 5,800 signatures

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Just days after George Mason University announced that Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin will be the school's class of 2023 commencement speaker, some students are petitioning against him giving the speech.

The petition had received over 5,000 signatures by Monday morning, and the list is still growing.

George Mason announced on Wednesday, March 22 that Youngkin would address the graduating class of 2023.

"We look forward to welcoming Governor Youngkin to speak to our graduating students, who we expect will comprise the largest and most diverse class of graduates ever," Mason President Gregory Washington said in a news release from the university. "Governor Youngkin’s drive for lifelong learning and his entrepreneurial mindset is what we cultivate in all of our graduates."

George Mason senior Alaina Ruffin launched the petition against Youngkin's speech on on Thursday, March 23.

By Monday at noon, it had gathered over 5,800 signatures. By 5:45 p.m., it had over 6,100.

In the petition, Ruffin cites what she characterized as "intentional targeting" of marginalized groups as a reason why Youngkin should not speak at or attend the ceremony.

The university's student government leadership also opposes Youngkin as the commencement speaker, saying in a letter they do not want to amplify the voice of a leader they feel has fueled harmful policies.

They cite Youngkin's school "model policies," which would require trans students to use school facilities and programs matching the sex they were assigned at birth, and would require parental approval for a student to use a name or pronoun other than the one in their official record.

Other students at George Mason applaud the decision to invite Youngkin to speak.

"It's very typical for a governor of any type -- you know, Terry McAuliffe came and spoke here, Tim Kaine came and spoke here, Ralph Northam held his victory party here in 2017 -- so it's very typical to see governors come here and do things, and it's no different to see Governor Youngkin come and do his commencement speech here," said Joe Szymanski, chair of the George Mason University College Republicans.

Youngkin is the latest in a series of sitting Virginia governors to address Mason graduates, according to the release. Former governors Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe also gave speeches at the university.

George Mason is not the first university with students to oppose Youngkin's appearance on campus.

In Feb. 2022, students at William & Mary staged a series of protests in opposition to Youngkin receiving an honorary degree during that university's Charter Day ceremony -- a degree conferral that has become tradition for new governors of the state in recent years.

Protests at William & Mary included a "No Degree for Bigotry" campaign started by students at the university's law school to prevent the degree conferral, a walkout of the ceremony, and protests during it, according to student newspaper The Flat Hat.

Students at high schools and middle schools around Northern Virginia also staged walkouts in September 2022 over Youngkin's then-proposed restrictions on transgender students' rights.

On Monday morning, George Mason president Gregory Washington sent a letter to students in which he acknowledged the controversy but defended the decision to have Youngkin give the commencement address.

"This discourse highlights one of the fundamental purposes of a university," the statement reads in part. "It is a place to engage, debate, and educate on topics where we agree and disagree, sometimes profoundly. If the Governor's speech were to be cancelled, it is unlikely that such public attention would be paid to the policies that students so passionately oppose."

Political science professor Dr. Stephen Farnsworth says that as Americans become more polarized, universities are struggling to find a balance between protecting free speech, and protecting marginalized students.

"As more and more people are combative and hateful in the things that they have to say, universities increasingly feel pressure by the left and by the right and are caught in the middle in these kinds of culture wars," Farnsworth said.

In response to the petition at George Mason, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor gave a statement to News4's media partner WTOP.

"Governor Youngkin looks forward to addressing the 2023 graduates of George Mason University -- and celebrating their tremendous accomplishment," the statement read.

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