With pride flags, ODU students protest Gov. Youngkin’s speech during commencement

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About 30 Old Dominion University students and a few faculty members turned their backs on Gov. Glenn Youngkin in protest during his commencement speech Saturday at the school’s graduation ceremony.

To a smattering of boos and cheers, the protesters stood and faced away from Youngkin as he delivered his address. Many waved and held pride flags as they protested.

Dominion Rock, a small boulder near the ODU quad which students paint during the school year, was emblazoned with an obscene message regarding Youngkin and another calling ODU President Brian Hemphill a coward.

The governor did not acknowledge the protesters, instead delivering a hopeful speech about the graduates’ futures.

More than two dozen ODU students gathered on campus Thursday to protest the speech. The students, who declined to give their names or be interviewed, came from several campus groups that believe Youngkin does not reflect the university’s values of diversity, acceptance and inclusion.

They cited several of the administration’s actions since Youngkin took office, including his executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory and “divisive concepts” in K-12 public schools, moves to restrict abortion access, the Virginia Department of Education’s model policies on the treatment of transgender students and more.

Thursday’s protest started with students chalking Kaufman Mall with messages such as “Stand up against bigotry,” “Stop outing kids,” “Banning history is divisive” and more. The students encouraged anyone who opposes Youngkin’s stance on those issues to stand and turn their back during his commencement speech.

In an email to students Thursday, ODU Student Government Association President Zaria Gassaway said Youngkin’s participation was a decades-long tradition for Virginia governors.

Gassaway disagreed with those criticizing the decision to allow Youngkin to speak, saying “ODU has a mission and history of welcoming differences.”

In an emailed statement, an ODU spokesperson said the university is “committed to fostering an environment for the meaningful expression of ideas and we encourage respectful and collegial dialogue.” The statement also noted the history of governors speaking at commencements.

A Change.org petition to remove Youngkin as the commencement speaker, started by an ODU alumna two weeks ago, had more than 3,000 signatures by Saturday.

Youngkin, who took office in January 2022, ran on culture war issues such banning critical race theory in public schools, while also appealing to suburban voters turned off by former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, according to Associated Press reporting.

Trevor Metcalfe, 757-222-5345, trevor.metcalfe@pilotonline.com

Kelsey Kendall, kelsey.kendall@virginiamedia.com