Student Outcry Follows Gov. Youngkin’s Announcement as Commencement Speaker

The petition created by an ODU alumna to prevent Gov. Youngkin from speaking at the 2023 undergraduate commencement.

By Sydney Haulenbeek, Editor in Chief

On Monday, April 24, ODU announced the featured speakers for the 138th commencement, which will be on May 5 and 6. The undergraduate ceremony on May 6 will feature Gov. Glenn Youngkin as speaker, and the faculty speaker at the graduate ceremony will be ODU professor Dr. Nina Brown, who has taught at ODU for 55 years. 


The announcement of Youngkin as an undergraduate commencement ceremony speaker has been met with backlash from the student body. Several hours after the announcement, ODU alumna Rachel Clifton started a petition to prevent Youngkin from speaking.


“…I am appalled at Old Dominion’s decision to make Youngkin the honorary speaker. Youngkin’s stance on transgender rights, the black community and women’s rights go completely against what ODU “claims” they stand for,” said Clifton. “It is a travesty that ODU will allow Youngkin to speak on behalf of these graduates when he has done nothing but harm to their communities.”


In an announcement, ODU applauded Youngkin’s tax cuts, business expansions, and education budget.


“We are looking forward to celebrating the academic achievements of our newest Monarch alumni as they transition to the next phase of their personal and professional lives,” said President Brian Hemphill. “We are equally excited to be joined by family members and loved ones for this milestone, as well as Governor Youngkin who will provide an inspiring message, which will be driven by his passion for service and success in business.”


On the petition, Clifton pushed against the decision, calling it “offensive”.


“How could a man who has gone against [the] constitutional rights of Virginians give an “inspiring” message to these graduates?” she said. “Why are we prioritizing “success in business”  rather than the safety and overall health for students at ODU? Is this truly the message ODU wants to leave for graduates and students alike?” 


Other signers list Youngkin’s ban of critical race theory and removal of protections for transgender students as some of the reasons for their opposition. 


Rachel Wilson, a criminal justice major who is graduating in 2025, signed and commented on the petition. 


“This man actively has been trying to eradicate the teaching of critical race theory and is invited to speak at a graduation of a school that has an immense number of BIPOC students and has degree options that teach and are based in CRT,” she said. “He has no business speaking at our school for the class of 2023. The president of ODU is tainting their graduation with a man who has been actively fighting against its students.”


“As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I feel disgusted that my graduation will be marred by a governor who wishes nothing but harm to people like me and my friends, said Darcy Liebell, who graduates this May. “We deserve a graduation free of hate, as do POC and other communities that Youngkin stands against.”


Other commentators point out that Youngkin’s political priorities are distinctly out of line with ODU’s educational values. 


“The university’s commitment to diversity is in conflict with this choice,” said Keith Demarah, a junior.


“Glenn Youngkin actively campaigns against a big part of the community at ODU,” said Hayden Dauphin, an astrophysics student. “It’s ridiculous that he would be invited to give a speech trying to inspire the very people he detests. Trans rights are human rights; Black Lives Matter. I’m not even graduating this year, but I don’t want him tainting my friends’ ceremony.” 


“We deserve to feel safe at our school”, another student said.


Commenters also discussed the potential for a walk-out, and said that if ODU doesn’t remove him as speaker, he will likely be booed. ODU’s Dominion Rock was spray painted Tuesday with this link:


“We want to use this platform to make our stance known,” said the anonymous students who created the site. “Sign the petition so that when the commencement gets news coverage, the number of signatures is high enough to send a message. Don’t stop there, talk to student orgs on the side of racial justice and trans rights, show up to schoolboard meetings, and figure out how to get involved.”


The petition had received over 1,500 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. You can find it online here.