Protests of controversial graduation speakers useful, have a history, by Roger Chesley

5/23/2024, 6 p.m.
High-ranking elected official comes to campus to pontificate at graduation. University bigwigs pat themselves on the back for the PR …

High-ranking elected official comes to campus to pontificate at graduation. University bigwigs pat themselves on the back for the PR boost.

Noticeable numbers of graduates then protest at the ceremony, outraged at the luminary — and the university’s tone-deaf selection.

That’s what we witnessed recently as Gov. Glenn Youngkin gave the commencement speech at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It’s also what happened at Howard University more than four decades ago. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush — representing an administration that repeatedly attacked the quest for racial equality — spoke at the historically Black institution in Washington. I was among the 1,000 graduates receiving degrees that sunny day in 1981.

My alma mater’s decision to provide Ronald Reagan’s second-in-command a platform was more egregious than VCU’s — by far. For example, months earlier then-Candidate Reagan had campaigned near where three civil rights workers had been murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in 1964 in Mississippi. In his 1980 speech, Candidate Reagan invoked “states’ rights” — code words for keeping the feds from investigating blatant discrimination, especially throughout the South.

Nor did he even acknowledge the previous murders, which had to be investigated by the FBI to achieve justice.

Still, you have to wonder why VCU officials tapped a governor who’s attacked teachers, lambasted critical race theory and interfered with the independence of public colleges in the state. His administration’s decision to review syllabi for courses about diversity, equity, inclusion and race at VCU and George Mason University — what one faculty member called “hostile state scrutiny” — ultimately led to both universities announcing course mandates wouldn’t go into effect this fall.

This is the person you let riff on musical metaphors at commencement? I’m wondering if the folks who invited Gov. Youngkin would’ve allowed the fox to guard the henhouse, too.

A VCU spokesman told me that it’s par for the course to invite the state’s chief executive to address the graduating class. Brian McNeill said previous gubernatorial speakers from both parties include George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe.

“We invite varied leaders from different backgrounds and with different perspectives to share their stories with our graduating class,” he said by email.

That may be. Though I don’t recall any recent governors as so overtly suspicious — and contemptuous of — the education community as Gov. Youngkin.

Mr. McNeill said a special committee annually recommends possible commencement speakers. That panel may include: cabinet members; board, faculty and student representatives; and other people chosen by the president. He didn’t have a list of the group’s members this year.

I wanted to know because it seems students, as on most campuses when such controversies arise, would’ve been the ones most likely to object.

Were they outvoted?

Some 1,200 graduating students signed up for the main commencement May 11 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Dozens walked out during Gov. Youngkin’s speech for a variety of reasons, including his crusade against efforts to promote racial equity in education and the teaching of Black history. Another reason students said they walked out was to support Palestinians during the ongoing Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

When I asked a Youngkin spokesman about the governor’s reaction, Christian Martinez replied the day was about “celebrating the students.” That’s what you say when you deflect from the crux of the issue.

As I noted earlier, the incident was a déjà vu moment.

My mother pleaded with me the morning of my graduation in 1981 not to protest. I was lukewarm about making any obvious display of disgust to- ward Vice President Bush.

Yet I supported others who turned their backs on the vice president, as dozens did that day.

Vice President Bush, as a chief representative of the Reagan administration, had to answer for its regressive attitudes on race. If there were no public protest, it would’ve been a tacit approval of the administration’s social actions — some coded, some overt.

Though only in office a few months, some of the administration’s positions and viewpoints were clear:

The administration opposed affirmative action and busing for school integration. It threatened to veto an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had allowed many Blacks — especially in the South — to finally gain access to the ballot box. (President Reagan had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act during his time in California, where he’d been governor. The landmark laws spurred equality for Black people in America.)

Plus, President Reagan had been fond of relaying a story on the campaign trail about a notorious “Chicago welfare queen.” The undertones suggested Black people were getting unfair advantages at the expense of white people, even though the woman in question wasn’t typical of the average welfare recipient.

Why, then, was Vice President Bush invited to my campus? Howard is a federally

chartered historically Black university, and it gets a sizable federal appropriation each year. HU officials were likely currying favor with the new presidential administration — despite the blowback.

At least, that’s what I remember from the time when I was more excited to earn my bachelor’s degree in print journalism than show disgust at Vice President Bush.

Those memories came flooding back after I read about the VCU protest. I doubt most graduates will see the incident May 11 as anything more than a blip on an otherwise joyous day.

The person who should be mortified, though, is Gov. Youngkin. His actions caused the protest in the first place. If he hadn’t politicized education, no one would even remember his speech — or the walkout.

This commentary originally appeared on virginiamercury.com