Students at a Virginia university recently protested and signed a petition to remove Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) as the graduation speaker, calling him "harmful and disrespectful" to the school's community.
On Tuesday, approximately 100 George Mason University students rallied on campus against the school's decision to invite Youngkin as the 2023 commencement speaker.
The university, which currently enrolls 36,000 students, announced last week that the governor would deliver the graduation speech.
"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. "Governor Youngkin's drive for lifelong learning and his entrepreneurial mindset is what we cultivate in all of our graduates."
The university's announcement applauded Youngkin for signing a budget bill that included $33.4 million in student financial aid.
Students protested for roughly two hours, waving pride flags and rallying in opposition to the governor's transgender policies. Several campus organizations, including the George Mason Democrats and BLACC Mason, joined in on the rally and insisted the school replace Youngkin with another speaker.
Alaina Ruffin, a senior at George Mason University, released a petition last week demanding that the school uninvite the governor. As of Wednesday, the petition had nearly 7,000 signatures.
Ruffin accused the school of neglecting students' needs, from "allowing homophobic, transphobic, racist, and/or anti-abortion groups to regularly occupy campus and harass passersby, to ignoring students and student organizations requesting assistance or support in their endeavors."
She urged the school to retract the invitation to Youngkin because selecting a speaker who "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."
Ruffin argued that Youngkin is "harmful and disrespectful to the many students who continuously shape GMU's community."
"I and my peers do not want the memories of our graduation day to be tainted by an individual who has harmed and continues to harm the people he serves," Ruffin added.
The university has refused to give in to students' demands, citing that George Mason University supports free speech.
"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 stated. "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."
"Mason has a long tradition of supporting free speech," he added. "That support extends to each person who gives a commencement speech. And no speaker can take away from our diversity. At Mason, diversity is about more than just looking different, it's about believing differently, thinking differently, expressing differently, and having the environment in which to do so. At Mason, that environment extends to every student, staff and faculty member. It also extends to Governors."
The university has previously invited several former Virginia governors to be keynote speakers at graduation ceremonies, including Republican Jim Gilmore, Democrat Mark Warner, Democrat Tim Kaine, and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
A spokesperson for Youngkin told WTTG-TV, "Governor Youngkin looks forward to addressing the 2023 graduates of George Mason University and celebrating their tremendous accomplishment."
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