Students and faculty at the College of William & Mary, the second oldest institution of higher learning in America, gathered together February 11, 2022, to celebrate the university’s 329th birthday. But the pomp-heavy festivities turned into something else: Virginia’s first public protest opposing conservative education reform since 2020.
School administrators, following tradition, used the occasion to award Governor Glenn Youngkin a Degree of Public Service.
But as Gov. Youngkin approached the podium, a familiar cry of “No justice, no peace” broke out in general admission. Approximately one third of the (already sparse) student audience rose from their seats—many clad in red shirts, some waving smuggled banners and signs decrying the governor as “a bigot” and “unwelcome”—and exited the stadium. One young man stayed behind, his shouting drowned out by prolonged booing, and the words of University President Katherine Rowe. The student was escorted out of Zable Stadium, and Gov. Youngkin took the podium.
The stadium protest was the culmination of other efforts. Law school students began a Change.org petition—titled “No Degrees For Bigotry!”—which gained 1,767 signatures. Students donned red shirts in protest. A safe space was organized.
Most protest efforts amounted to a decentralized collection of directives, shared amongst students via social media.
Jacob Hall—one of a few picketing students gathered outside the stadium—is a graduating senior at the college. They explained the main cause of protestor’s anger: “I think the role of education is, first and foremost, to teach the skills necessary to acquire basic information, and then to instill the critical skills necessary to decipher and make use of that information," they said. "Schools are a training ground; it should be a safe space to learn and to ask questions. When we start to worry about how, specifically, white children will react—when we prioritize that over the objective truths of lived experiences, I think we have lost something critical.”
On his first day in office, Gov. Youngkin released 11 Executive Actions: nine orders, and two directives. Of the nine executive orders, three concerned public education in Virginia.
Executive Order One, “Ending the Use of Inherently Divisive Teaching Concepts, Including Critical Race Theory, and Restoring Excellence in K-12 Education in the Commonwealth,” was immediately controversial. EO1 2022 deems CRT as an example of “political indoctrination,” an “inherently divisive concept,” claiming that it “and its progeny” encourage “students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”
Shortly before visiting William & Mary, Gov. Youngkin opened a “tip line,” encouraging parents to send “reports and observations” on public school employees who “act objectionably” for documentation. Parents and teachers in Virginia spoke out against the tip line, flooding the email with false reports.
Participants across the range of organized protests agreed that Gov. Youngkin’s policy—while a reason for discontent regarding his Charter Day presence—was not the focus of protesting. Hall continued: “What we’re doing here has more to do with this university than the politics of Virginia. Our school is reckoning with a very long history of racism—our school was built by slaves—when we invite someone to celebrate our school who has taken executive action against underprivileged groups, it feels like the school needs to take a stand. And it’s choosing the wrong stand. I do have opinions about Youngkin—I’m happy to express those—but at this moment I feel like it’s more important to express my disappointment in William & Mary.”
Gov. Youngkin’s honorary degree was awarded on a traditional basis: every governor in Virginia history has received an honorary degree, with one exception. Ralph Northham was removed from Charter Day programming in 2019: A racist yearbook photo resurfaced depicting Northam and peers in Klu Klux Klan uniforms and blackface, and University President Katherine Rowe released a statement declaring that “the Governor’s presence would fundamentally disrupt” a “sense of campus unity” at the heart of the Charter Day celebration.
At William & Mary—an institution of ‘higher education,’ floating above the skirmish—the fight is largely symbolic.
The aforementioned student walkout, originally organized by W&M’s NAACP, also included student protestors who participated in the protest, but did so without affiliating with a particular campus organization. One such protestor—who chose to remain anonymous, as disrupting the Charter Day ceremony constitutes a violation of student conduct guidelines—spoke about symbolic victory.
“I was thinking it would be really great if, the day after Charter Day, instead of headlines being ‘Glenn Youngkin gets an honorary degree from William & Mary,’ the headlines are ‘Protesters disrupt Charter Day ceremony while Glenn Youngkin receives an honorary degree.’ And that is what happened.”
The student, a sociology major and theater enthusiast (as well as a member of W&M’s College Socialists), stated that the protestors “wanted to show that he [Gov. Youngkin] doesn’t represent the values of the student body. We wanted to be sure people knew he does not speak for us.” The young activist emphasized that “the message was loud and clear.”
Dr. Jamel Donnor, professor of Education and African American Studies at William & Mary, pointed out that “politicians flourish” under a spotlight, and that reforms pushed by Gov. Youngkin and similar GOP executives are partially a response to the ‘cancel culture’ phenomenon, that “[conservatives] might suggest, ‘you brought this on yourselves’.”
“One piece,” Dr. Donnor suggested, towards determining the ‘success’ of the protest, will be a reevaluation of William & Mary’s administrative policies, including the traditional governor’s degree.
“The other piece is, it’s always good to see students exercise their right to free speech," he said. "It was refreshing to see students exercising their right to free speech in a coordinated manner, even outside of the arena.”
Dr. Donnor did not attend the Charter Day ceremony, for fear of positioning himself as a “political target.” During the 2020-2021 school year, violent threats directed at Donnor were investigated by the FBI, a result of the Federal Justice Department’s 2021 federal task force addressing “the rise in criminal conduct towards school personnel.”
While concrete results of the protest remain elusive, Dr. Donnor emphasizes that ‘symbolic’ efforts are no less meaningful.
“It’s easy to discount those as ‘performative,’ and I’m always quick to push back,’ Donnor said, reflecting on the William & Mary’s Black Lives Matter movement, which resulted in a number of campus buildings being renamed, as well as the removal of multiple statues of slave-owning figures. He continued: “Why do you think these folks get so upset over these statues coming down? That’s symbolic, right? Why can’t we appreciate that value? I bet Thomas Jefferson never thought that a black, tenured professor would be having an interview with a white student. It’s easy to ‘cancel’—to minimize—that symbolism, but why can’t it be a starting point?,” he asked.
GOP politicians are utilizing concern over parental rights in public schools to mobilize their voting base, leading to a nationwide push to ‘depoliticize’ the public school system. The flood of newly established conservative groups focused on education reform is unceasing: Since 2020, national organizations (including Parents Defending Education and Moms for Liberty) and local groups (like Loudoun County Public Schools’ own Fight for Schools) have joined the ranks of organizations like No Left Turn and the American Principles Project. Focus on race, gender, and ‘political indoctrination’ has transformed education reform into a full-blown culture war; a war which has reached Virginia in the last year.
Kyra Cook, member of the School Liaison Committee for Williamsburg James City County Public Schools, echoed sentiments that GOP legislation in schools constitutes a reaction to education policy pushed for by Democrats, including Governor Northam, that center political issues, rather than the needs of the public education system. She also identified the largest problem for K-12 education in Virginia: funding.
For Cook, Gov. Youngkin’s recent policies constitute no special case—or particular threat—to the priorities of public educators. Instead, according to Cook, recent legislation continues a pattern of policy making that is “good for politics, bad for schools.”
According to a legislative index by PEN America, “gag orders” targeting higher education are on the rise. Of 103 pending bills targeting educational institutions, 45% target higher education. These bills—active in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and New York—are all sponsored by Republican representatives. In addition to ‘promoting transparency,' including the publication of all academic syllabi online, many of these bills target instruction itself.
Kentucky’s HB 706 bans the instruction, institution, and presentation of “Critical Social Justice Theory”—defined as the belief that “domination, oppression, and marginalization... provides the foundation for and protects societal systems that preserve the interests of the dominant”—and “Revisionist History of America’s Founding”—including maintenance that “racism and sexism are not merely products of individual prejudice.” Failure to avoid the concepts (as defined) would be “considered a violation of the employee code of conduct that justifies disciplinary sanction, up to and including termination of employment.”
The movement to reform education—frequently framed as an effort to “depoliticize” schools—has also resulted in examples of direct political censorship. In Oklahoma, SB 614 would “afford certain rights” to students in public colleges, including rights to an “unbiased education.” Unbiased, in this case, means without “anti-American bias” and/or displays of “propaganda of any organization or symbol of socialism, communism, Marxism or anti-American sentiment.”
Section 3 also declares a state of emergency, whereby SB 614 is “immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace.” In so doing, SB 614 responds to fears of leftist indoctrination in schools by placing power over instruction—not in the hands of parents, educators, or students—but in the hands of the state.
Bills in Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina prohibit the teaching or institution of the 1619 Project in higher education, as well as “similar” programs focusing on slavery’s institution in the founding of the United States. I write this article in fellowship with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, itself partnered with the New York Times, to “build a learning community around The 1619 Project.” Were such a bill passed in Virginia, this article would not be possible.
In all of these cases, state legislation targeting institutions of higher learning was preceded by legislation targeting K-12 education. One thing is clear: if W&M’s symbolic struggle amounts to a starting point, the fight against concrete legislation may be around the corner.
William & Mary administration was unavailable for an interview, but Suzanne Clavet, director of news and media at the University communications office, provided the following statement.
“Discussion, differing opinions and dialogue are part of the education experience at William & Mary, and we are committed to the First Amendment and freedom of expression on our campus," she said. "In fact, W&M currently has a green light rating from FIRE, the organization’s highest rating, and is one of just three Virginia schools in this category. Critically important is the tool of listening to and learning from one another, even those whose views with which you strongly disagree. The disruption during the Charter Day ceremony was brief and attendees were overwhelmingly welcoming and respectful of our guests.”