The Bulletin

GMU leader defends plan to host Youngkin as commencement speaker

By: - March 27, 2023 2:44 pm

Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers the State of the Commonwealth to the Virginia General Assembly Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

The president of George Mason University appears unswayed by a student-led petition asking the school to reverse its choice of Gov. Glenn Youngkin as its spring commencement speaker.

In a lengthy statement released Monday, GMU President Gregory Washington noted GMU is Virginia’s “largest and most diverse public university” and said he supports the rights of students to “advocate for themselves and their communities.”

“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,” said Washington, who is GMU’s first Black president. “As a student leader at North Carolina State University, I did more than my share of speaking up and speaking out, and so I can identify with Mason students’ passion and conviction. That experience also taught me that once you start silencing people you disagree with, you open a door that ultimately targets historically marginalized communities more than it benefits them.”

The online petition opposing the school’s choice of Youngkin as commencement speaker points specifically to the governor’s support for rolling back accommodations for transgender students in K-12 education and his efforts to restrict the way public schools discuss race.

“Selecting a speaker that has passed anti-trans legislation, promoted the abolishment of racial equity curricula, and restricted the availability of literature in public schools is an intentional target towards historically marginalized communities comprising Mason,” reads the petition, which had gained 5,890 signatures as of early Monday afternoon. “It is harmful and disrespectful to the many students who continuously shape GMU’s community to bring in an individual who has also neglected the needs of Virginians.”

The Youngkin administration announced a new K-12 model policy last fall that requires transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that align with their birth sex rather  than their gender identity and would force students to get parental permission to change their name, nickname or pronouns. After campaigning against critical race theory in 2021, one of Youngkin’s first actions in office was to sign an executive order banning the use of “inherently divisive concepts” in Virginia schools. He also ended several equity initiatives within the Virginia Department of Education.

Both actions have drawn significant pushback from teachers and school leaders.

The petition ends with a call for the GMU administration to “take appropriate action to ensure Governor Youngkin does not attend or speak at the Spring 2023 Commencement Ceremony.”

Located in Northern Virginia, GMU has a total enrollment of more than 37,000 students, according to its latest headcounts. The school announced its choice of Youngkin as its May 18 commencement speaker last week, noting several past governors from both political parties had spoken at past events.

Youngkin gave a commencement speech at Virginia Tech last year.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.