On Friday February 11th, 2022 the College of William and Mary plans to award Governor Youngkin an honorary degree. Student backlash has been strong and fierce. A group of law students led by Skye McCollum J.D. ’24 started a petition entitled ‘No Degrees for Bigotry’. As of writing the petition has garnered close to 1,500 signatures and its associated Instagram has amassed over 500 followers. In addition, several campus organizations such as W&M FIRE and W&M Vox have posted their own statements opposing the conferral. Many students have reposted these groups’ Instagram graphics to their stories and urged fellow students to share concerns with President Rowe and the Board of Visitors.
The Asian American Student Initiative took it a step further offering a “Charter Day Safe Space” on the Sunken Garden as a form of protest and to redirect “attention away from Governor Youngkin’s presence on campus.” An opinion piece in the Flat Hat argued that Youngkin “used his campaign to stoke the flames of white supremacy,” and in signing the change.org post a petitioner commented:
“Honoring Youngkin actively contradicts W&M’s supposed values of inclusion, equity, etc, undermines the work of the wonderful faculty who are teaching real histories and potentials regarding oppression & liberation, and invalidates students who share their experiences of discrimination on campus.”
The current that flows throughout these views is that the College is failing its mission. Not only is the College awarding this degree in the midst of Black history month, but it also just released a Diversity, Inclusion, and Equality report that outlined a commitment to “identify barriers to inclusivity and opportunities to improve belonging on campus” and highlighted the idea that “the history of Williamsburg and William and Mary continue[s] to negatively impact the experience of employees and students.” The argument goes that by honoring Youngkin the College is ignoring its values, shirking its responsibility to its community, and contributing to the oppression of minorities.
Although the sentiments of these views are genuine, they are misguided. The mission of the College is to “inspire lifelong learning, generate new knowledge, and expand understanding” and to “cultivate creative thinkers, principled leaders, and compassionate global citizens equipped for lives of meaning and distinction.” To achieve these goals the College needs money. About a fifth of the funding for the College comes from the State General Fund. Through his position as Governor, Youngkin has the ability to set legislative priorities, like funding for higher education. In addition, as the head of the executive branch he has the power to pass executive orders that do things like combat CRT (1), eliminate vaccine mandates (2) or combat antisemitism (9). All of which are strong topics of discussion here on campus.
For many decades now the College has invited newly elected Governors to speak and receive an honorary degree. To renege on that tradition and slight Governor Youngkin in response to his political views could only cause harm. As it is we can only speculate on his response, but the College should not risk creating a vindictive Governor.
A common refrain among the administration at the College is to say, “As the second-oldest institution in the US, William & Mary looks to the next 300 years, not just the next 30.” Although a bit grandiose, the idea is solid. The College has a clear mission. Over the past 300 years fulfilling that mission has taken working with Democrats and Republicans alike. Schmoozing it with political leaders regardless of their political stance has always been and will continue to be part of fulfilling the mission.
Governor Youngkin’s visit, and conferral can only benefit the College. For those who are upset or frustrated or disappointed feel free to use your rights as citizens to protest and to let your voices be heard but we should not allow those emotions to interfere with the long-term success of William & Mary. In the meantime, I would suggest taking the view that Margaret Brigham did at the same Charter Day ceremony in 1994 where Republican Governor George Allen received an honorary degree and Lady Margaret Thatcher was sworn in as the 21st Chancellor of the College, “I probably won’t agree with anything she[he] says, but it is an occasion.”