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Over 100 students walk out of VCU commencement to protest Governor’s Speech

Students walk out to protest Governor Glenn Youngkin during his VCU 2024 commencement speech.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Students walk out to protest Governor Glenn Youngkin during his VCU 2024 commencement speech.

Over 100 Virginia Commonwealth University students walked out of their own commencement Saturday. The walk out was part of a protest of policy decisions students say were made by their commencement speaker, Governor Glenn Youngkin.

As Youngkin described the chance to speak to the 2024 graduating class as a "distinct privilege," he was drowned out by cheers from the audience supporting the walk out. The students were protesting the governor for rollbacks on diversity, equity and inclusion programs and the arrest of pro-Palestine protesters at campuses across the state. They also opposed the Board of Visitors vote to make a racial literacy course, created and led by students, not mandatory as originally proposed.

Kay Coghill was among those who walked out. She graduated with a doctorate in philosophy and media arts Saturday, but she’s also a faculty member in VCU’s gender and sexuality and English departments. Coghill blamed VCU President Michael Rao for inviting the Governor to speak, something she called "a slap in the face."

"Dr. Rao says he cares about diversity in our space, but we know the governor doesn't care about diversity," Coghill told Radio IQ. "So, why would you bring someone who could harm us with his words to our space?”

After students left the event, they marched down to a local park and further explained their complaints. Among those who spoke out was Siatta, a graduate from the schools of African American studies and Psychology.

“The university will prop us up and use it for representation on their own behalf but the moment we speak up we’re oppressed,” the student said.

In a statement a spokesperson for VCU said no students would be punished for the walkout. A spokesperson for Youngkin referred press inquiries to his speech which, using a metaphor about music, telling the roughly 4,700 graduating students quote “As you enter a world with countless opportunities… Make a masterpiece.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.