During the College of William and Mary’s annual Charter Day ceremony on Friday, Feb. 11, students responded to Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin’s recipience of an honorary degree with a variety of opposition movements, including a walkout, protests during the ceremony and a safe space event that occurred at the same time as the Charter Day ceremony set to celebrate the College’s 329th year.
Charter Day, which was originally called Founder’s Day, commemorates the day that King William III and Queen Mary II of England granted the College its royal charter. In recent years it has become a tradition for Virginia governors to receive an honorary degree from the College and speak at Charter Day in their inaugural year. However, when the College announced that Youngkin would speak at this year’s ceremony, students were disappointed and angry with the school’s choice.
“My first reaction was I was initially confused and upset,” Grace Engelhart ’23 said. “I didn’t know the precedent of the university inviting the governor to Charter Day. I didn’t know that was a tradition that they had. I thought he was just being invited and that was very angering and confusing. But then when I heard about the tradition, it was still upsetting that they invited such a controversial political individual across the country. He’s controversial across the country to a school of higher education, especially with a new mask policy that actively hurts and impacts students.”
“I didn’t know that was a tradition that they had. I thought he was just being invited and that was very angering and confusing. But then when I heard about the tradition, it was still upsetting that they invited such a controversial political individual across the country.”
Students began to organize protests in opposition to Youngkin’s involvement in Charter Day, with movements formed in opposition such as the “No Degree for Bigotry” campaign that was started by students at the College’s law school to attempt to try and prevent Youngkin from receiving an honorary degree.
The College’s chapter of the NAACP and Voters for Tomorrow also organized a walkout to take place at the beginning of Youngkin’s speech at the Charter Day ceremony.
Throughout the beginning of the ceremony and the conferral of honorary degrees to Howard J. Busbee ’65, JD ’67 and Rep. Robert C. Scott, the Kaplan Arena was full with students, faculty and community members. When Gov. Youngkin was called up to the lectern to receive his honorary degree, many students walked out of the ceremony. Some students held signs with messages marked with the words “G. Youngkin is a Bigot,” while chanting “No Justice, No Peace.”
College President Katherine Rowe responded to the student’s protests, encouraging students to discontinue their actions during the ceremony.
“Kaplan Arena is an arena for enthusiastic expression that’s for sure,” Rowe said. “Most often we’re cheering on William and Mary teams during games, but right now is not a basketball game. So I ask those of you whose behavior is disrupting this event to stop immediately and let the program continue consistent with the policies and the values of this university.”
Though a large portion of the audience remained in support of Youngkin and cheered after Rowe’s remarks, another student in the audience continued to openly object to Youngkin’s honorary degree. Rowe told this student that they were in violation of the university code of conduct and police officers escorted the student out of the building. Most students walked out without engaging in verbal protests, and Engelhart believed that all students should have conducted their protests quietly.
“I didn’t really agree with the people yelling because I didn’t want the students to get a bad name for what they are trying to communicate,” Engelhart said. “Like, I think that people should have just quietly walked out because that’s the most impactful and respectful thing to do.”
As the College’s Charter Day ceremony occurred at Kaplan Arena, a group of students gathered at the Sunken Garden to attend the Charter Day Safe Space. The eventwas organized by the American Asian Student Initiative and featured performances from four student-led dance groups — Zodiacs Dance Crew, Afsana, Griffin Bhangra and Syndicate Hip Hop Dance Team — while Students of Hip-Hop Legacy managed the DJ booth.
Director of AASI Grace Liscomb ’23 was one of the main facilitators of the event. She discussed how the event came to fruition and why she felt it necessary to create a safe space for students during Charter Day.
“One of the dance groups was invited to perform at Charter Day, but when they found out that Youngkin was involved they were kind of uncomfortable with his presence there and they asked AASI, ‘Is there an event or protest or anything going on where we could still perform and have that platform and get that exposure?’” Liscomb said.
The safe space event gave students a platform to speak and perform, while highlighting the different cultures and perspectives that the College’s students embody.
“This is going to be focused on redirecting the attention onto the students and redirecting it away from Youngkin,” Liscomb said. “Look at the beautiful cultures and ethnicities that we have to offer.”
President of SoHHL Camryn Claude ’22 spoke about her reasoning to show up to the Charter Day Safe Space.
“Even if AASI hadn’t asked us to come and help us with the music, I still would have been here because I think it is really important to support the marginalized communities here,” Claude said. “I think it was important for me to be here to show that we, as the educated young people who are going to be pushing America forward in the future, have to be able to make a statement.”
“I think it was important for me to be here to show that we, as the educated young people who are going to be pushing America forward in the future, have to be able to make a statement.”
Claude shared that her statement was in opposition to Gov. Youngkin being honored and speaking at the ceremony, noting that she disagrees with the College continuing the tradition of inviting the Virginia governor to speak at the Charter Day ceremony and receive an honorary degree during their first year in office.
“It has nothing to do in my opinion with tradition, as much as it does to do with the fact that he stands for what a lot of William and Mary alumni believe in and what a lot of donors believe in,” Claude said. “ Some traditions shouldn’t be honored. Slavery was a tradition at one point, women not being at the college was a tradition at one point, Asians not being at the College was a tradition. So at some point we have to be aware of what traditions are worth keeping.”