It was not surprising that some George Mason University graduates walked out during Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin's commencement speech on Thursday, May 18, 2023. That's because Mason's College Democrats appear to have organized the walkout and petitioned against him being their speaker.
Some George Mason University graduates had planned in advance to walk out, turn their backs on the speaker, and hold up posters in protest of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivering this year's commencement speech.
Online petition and plan for the walkout
As part of a longstanding tradition, GMU says it asked Youngkin to be the speaker, similar to other Commonwealth leaders in the past. When George Mason University first announced that Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin would be the commencement speaker, students started an online petition and held rallies to get him removed. They argued the Republican governor fails to hold the same values as the college. Protestors specifically called out his stance on how race and history are taught in schools and policies concerning transgender students.
The walkout came after several petitions to remove Governor Youngkin as speaker, with one petition getting over 8,000 signatures, but it did not keep Governor Youngkin from being the 2023 commencement speaker.
In response to the backlash, another online petition in support of Youngkin speaking was created. It had only 163 signatures.
Statement from GMU President Gregory Washington
In a letter to students weeks before graduation, GMU President Gregory Washington wrote that despite the backlash, the university planned to move forward with the commencement. He also wrote:
"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."
The president of Mason's College Republicans Joe Szymanski said the group of protesters does not reflect the class as a whole. He added that he was excited to hear the governor speak.
"He is the governor coming to speak at the largest public institution in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. That's pretty common."
At the graduation service
When Governor Glenn Youngkin (R-Virginia) began to deliver his commencement speech, some students demonstrated their opposition against him. According to a post on Twitter, cheers erupted as the speaker took to the podium.
Boos were heard and signs were held saying "Mason Demands Action" from graduating students who oppose the governor. Some turned their backs on him, and several students walked out. However, the majority of the graduation class showed no signs of demonstration.
Comments about the commencement speaker
Back in March when the University announced Youngkin was going to be the commencement speaker, John Dressel said, "This is not someone who reflects the values that the university claims to have."
Student Dunni Oni stated, “His beliefs don't align with the university and a lot of beliefs in this institution. My big thing is ensuring that Mason students at large feel safe, heard, and protected, and he does not ensure that."
Jason Motley, a graduating student who walked out, said, “I think it feels very empowering. I think whatever person he may be, his political views just don't align with the betterment of this university.”
A GMU spokesperson made the following statement about the commencement:
“The governor celebrated the largest graduating class in the history of George Mason University, their stories, and diversity of thought in the Commonwealth. The governor will continue to deliver for Virginia, preserve and protect free speech, and praise the many accomplishments of GMU grads.”
In spite of the planned protest, GMU handed out nearly a record number of 11,000 degrees and certificates. The GMU Class of 2023 is considered the largest and most diverse across the Commonwealth.