President Rao invites Youngkin to speak at Commencement, campus groups disapprove

Gov. Glenn Youngkin will be VCU’s 2024 Spring Commencement speaker. Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

Hisham Vohra, Contributing Writer

Andrew Kerley, Audience Editor

Gov. Glenn Youngkin will be VCU’s 2024 Spring Commencement speaker after being invited by VCU President Michael Rao, a move that has drawn backlash from some student groups who say the governor does not represent them, according to posts from various student organizations.

Commencement is on May 11 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, according to a press release.

Youngkin, a Republican, will continue a longstanding tradition of Virginia governors speaking at VCU’s — and other schools’ — graduation ceremonies. Past speakers included Terry McAulliffe in 2015, Bob McDonnell in 2011, Tim Kaine in 2008, Mark Warner in 2004, Jim Gilmore in 1999 and George Allen in 1997.

VCU’s overall history of graduation speakers shows the university invites varied leaders from different backgrounds and perspectives, said VCU spokesperson Brian McNeill.

“Providing students opportunities to hear these viewpoints is a fundamental part of VCU’s mission,” McNeill said.

Rao invited Youngkin to speak in Nov. 2023, as revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request by journalist and VCU alum Tom Nash. The Office of Government Relations for VCU followed up multiple times before Youngkin accepted the invitation.

McNeill declined to comment on how the selection process for Commencement speakers works.

The governor has crossed paths with VCU on multiple occasions. Youngkin and Rao previously opened the VCU x CodeRVA Lab School in January, the first in Youngkin’s Lab School program, according to a press release.

Youngkin also called for Rao to step down as president of VCU Health last year, following the failed Clay Street development, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times. Rao said he supports Youngkin’s recommendation to step down.

A coalition of campus groups dubbing themselves “NotWelcomeAtVCU” have asked graduating students to walk out of the ceremony unless VCU removes Youngkin as speaker, as posted on their Instagram page. Some of the account’s posts have garnered hundreds of likes, with one in particular getting over 2,000.

Similar protests occurred at George Mason University when Youngkin spoke at the school’s 2023 Spring Commencement, according to a previous report by WUSA9.

The NotWelcomeAtVCU campaign includes Catch the Fire, Green Action RVA and VCU chapters for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Students for Justice in Palestine, Young Democratic Socialists of America, the National Association for Black Social Workers, the National Association for Blacks in Criminal Justice and United Campus Workers of Virginia.

The coalition has made social media posts criticizing Youngkin on a number of issues, from his rollbacks on accommodations for transgender K-12 students, to his pushback against pro-Palestine activism on college campuses and his efforts to withdraw from carbon-cutting initiatives.

Recently, Youngkin also received backlash from the coalition for requesting to view syllabi for classes teaching VCU’s upcoming racial literacy requirement, a move faculty called “unprecedented” and threatening to “academic freedom,” according to previous reports by The Commonwealth Times.

Christian Martinez, the deputy press secretary for Youngkin, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Governor Glenn Youngkin’s selection as the Commencement speaker is not just inappropriate, it’s an affront to every principle of justice and equality VCU claims to uphold,” NotWelcomeAtVCU stated in an email to The Commonwealth Times.

The coalition also made posts in which they criticized VCU administrators for complying with Youngkin’s requests and sending his office 11 syllabi for racial literacy courses.

“VCU’s performative commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is a cynical exploitation of progressive values,” NotWelcomeAtVCU stated.

The coalition called the tradition of inviting governors to speak at Commencements regardless of their party a “hollow justification used to mask deeply problematic decisions.” They stated someone like VCU alum Dr. Sesha Joi Moon, the until-recently director of diversity and inclusion for the U.S. House of Representatives, would have made a better speaker. Moon was the first Black queer woman to establish an endowment at VCU in Nov. 2023.

“There are many many choices that would suffice, but this is a conversation that should be had by the broader VCU community and the VCU institution, rather than just the institution itself,” the statement reads.

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