Commence the protest

Grads walk out on Youngkin at VCU

George Copeland Jr. | 5/16/2024, 6 p.m.
College commencements across Richmond began in dramatic fashion over the weekend, as graduates drew attention to problems with their schools, …
Over 100 Virginia Commonwealth University graduates walk out May 11 as Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his 2024 Commencement address at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Photo by Sandra Sellars

College commencements across Richmond began in dramatic fashion over the weekend, as graduates drew attention to problems with their schools, their leaders and their treatment of students.

Last Saturday, over 100 graduates at Virginia Commonwealth University walked out of the university’s commencement ceremony in protest of its keynote speaker, Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Gov. Youngkin’s speech, which focused on the roughly 4,700 graduates as conductors “composing (their) symphony” was drowned out by cheers from the crowd as students stood and exited the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Some of those who left marched to Abner Clay Park, carrying signs that read “Youngkin Not Welcome at VCU” and “No Graduation As Usual,” chanting as they crossed the city.

“I’ve been told we should not politicize our major events in our university,” said graduate Arrington Evans, addressing the crowd and the press on the grounds of the park. “I’ve been told that it would ruin our moment, and if anything I think it made our moment better.”

A similar walkout by graduates occurred during Gov. Youngkin’s keynote speech at last year’s commencement ceremony at George Mason University. While Gov. Youngkin didn’t directly address the disruption of the VCU ceremony, his speech did seem to vaguely refer to the actions and decisions of some of the graduates.

“I encourage you to see opportunities for addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division. Seek out both/and moments, instead of either/or moments,” Gov. Youngkin said. “We need each of you, your talents, dreams, aspirations, your contributions that certainly will make tomorrow better than today.”

The walkout and subsequent march was the culmination of weeks of criticism by students over the choice of Gov. Youngkin as keynote speaker. His perspective on student protests against the Israel-Hamas war has earned him pushback that grew after VCU, local and state police used tear gas to disperse a pro-Palestinian encampment at the university weeks earlier.

However, Gov. Youngkin’s positions on race, gender, sexuality and education were frequent points of criticism weeks before that encampment. His administration’s approach to how VCU develops its curriculum ultimately inspired the walkout and protest, which was encouraged by the Not Welcome at VCU student group and the VCU chapter of the Virginia NAACP.

“Your administrative decision to continuously postpone the racial literacy requirement as well as comply with Gov. Youngkin’s demand to view the syllabi is anti-democratic and anti-intellectual,” the VCU NAACP wrote in a letter to the VCU Board of Visitors and VCU President Michael Rao.

“These actions not only undermine academic freedom and intellectual inquiry, they also perpetuate a narrative that overlooks the intricate nuances of racial history.”

While other commencement ceremonies went smoother in comparison to VCU, ongoing issues were made known at another.

During Virginia Union University’s commencement ceremony last Saturday, Student Government Association President Syiyanna Finch took the time to acknowledge the challenges students and faculty had to face while on campus during her student address.

She cited heating and cooling issues in buildings, elevators that don’t work or leave people stuck, internet connection issues that drew laughter and applause from the guests and graduates.

The event was the first complete VUU graduation since the COVID-19 pandemic, with 343 graduates accounting for the largest graduating class in VUU’s history, alongside the largest class of graduate students VUU has seen, according to school officials.

VUU President Hakim J. Lucas downplayed any controversy around Ms. Finch’s speech as students being allowed “to tell their story,” but her words clearly struck a chord for those present, even when presented as a humorous take on the collegiate experience.

“But besides all that, we made it and we stuck it through,” Ms. Finch said. “And because of everything we went through at Virginia Union University, we can go through anything in this world.”