FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — George Mason University (GMU) President Gregory Washington made a written statement on Monday, March 27, responding to complaints from community members about Gov. Glenn Youngkin being named the commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2023.

In a statement on the university website — entitled “What it means to be a Patriot” — Washington defends the decision to invite Youngkin as the commencement speaker.

“As president of the largest and most diverse public university in our state, I support those students who are making their voices heard, and I applaud their courage and commitment to advocate for themselves and their communities,” Washington said. “That being said, I don’t believe that we should silence the voices of those with whom we disagree, especially in this forum where there is no imminent threat present as a result of the disagreements.”

Washington’s statement comes in response to public opposition by students and others — including a change.org petition with over 6,400 signatures.

“Selecting a speaker that has passed anti-trans legislation, promoted the abolishment of racial equity curricula, and restricted the availability of literature in public schools is an intentional target towards historically marginalized communities comprising Mason,” the petition reads. “It is harmful and disrespectful to the many students who continuously shape GMU’s community to bring in an individual who has also neglected the needs of Virginians.”

Washington applauded the “courage and commitment” of students speaking out against Youngkin but said universities should be safe spaces for debate and disagreement.

“With our differences come many world views, beliefs, experiences and expressions, and the only way we thrive is by providing a safe and open public square that allows these differences to comingle,” Washington said. “This environment can be uncomfortable to navigate because it requires sometimes hearing and seeing things you don’t like. But it also means everyone – including you – has a platform to advocate for your beliefs.”

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson from the Youngkin’s office, said the governor is looking forward to addressing GMU’s 2023 graduates and “celebrating their tremendous accomplishment.”

Youngkin is scheduled to speak during the university’s Commencement Ceremony at EagleBank Arena on May 18.