What it means to be a Patriot

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Dear Fellow Patriots,

What does it mean to be a Patriot? Since I arrived at George Mason University in 2020, I have periodically returned to this existential question. This time, we grapple with it relative to spring 2023 commencement. 

In May, our featured commencement speaker will be Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. This announcement has deeply upset members of the Mason community who feel targeted by the Governor’s positions on teaching about race, or addressing the needs of transgender students in public schools. These students want the Governor replaced as a commencement speaker because of these policies. His inclusion in commencement has also been greeted as good news to those who support the Governor. I have heard from both groups.

Is his inclusion in commencement a betrayal of our core identity of diversity, and commitment to inclusivity? Or are his presence and the passionate objections it has inspired actually the purest reflections of who we are as Mason Patriots?

Mason students come by their objections to the Governor authentically, and their rejection of his positions are rooted in very real, deeply personal, often painful life experiences. It is my sincere hope that our students use this opportunity to share their stories, challenges and triumphs, and that the Governor will hear their opinions, respectfully consider and reflect on them, and consider that feedback when making, amending or changing his administration’s policies. 

This discourse highlights one of the fundamental purposes of a university. It is a place to engage, debate, and educate on topics where we agree and disagree, sometimes profoundly. If the Governor’s speech were to be cancelled, it is unlikely that such public attention would be paid to the policies students so passionately oppose.

This is vital because our students must prepare to inherit and lead a world with endless conflicts and divisions. Would we really be preparing them for that world if we removed the opportunities for them to safely engage in debate and discourse? 

Or is it better to expose them to people and ideas that may offend or challenge them, but in an environment of steadfast support and safety, so they may develop the agency to effectively express and advocate for themselves once they leave the university environment?

I believe it is the latter. If we teach that the only way to deal with opposition is to suppress it, we rob students of the very tools they will need to build an effective society. 

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. 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. As a student leader at North Carolina State University, I did more than my share of speaking up and speaking out, and so I can identify with Mason students’ passion and conviction. That experience also taught me that once you start silencing people you disagree with, you open a door that ultimately targets historically marginalized communities more than it benefits them.

Over the past two years, the Mason community has undergone significant introspection through various strategic planning and branding exercises, and challenged ourselves to answer fundamental questions of who we are, who we wish to be, and why anyone should care. In other words, what does it mean to be a Patriot?

More than any four-year institution in our state, we are both progressive and conservative. We are both wealthy and impoverished. Privileged and historically marginalized. Young and old. Local and international. First-generation college students and second-generation Mason students. Working parents and working soldiers. Black, brown, white and every pigmentation of humanity. Gay, straight, cisgender, transgender, he/him, she/her, and they/them. We embody America’s highest aspirations and its flawed lived experiences. We are its galvanized unity and its infuriating divisions. We are complicated and messy, earnest and scrappy. It is complex to navigate all of these things, which is one of the most difficult and rewarding aspects of my job. 

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. 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.

Mason has a long tradition of supporting free speech. That support extends to each person who gives a commencement speech. And no speaker can take away from our diversity. At Mason, diversity is about more than just looking different, it’s about believing differently, thinking differently, expressing differently, and having the environment in which to do so. At Mason, that environment extends to every student, staff and faculty member. It also extends to Governors.

As Patriots, we are many things, but we are ALL of these things TOGETHER. And that’s what makes us beautifully DIFFERENT. And that’s what it means to be a Patriot. 

I look forward to meeting and continuing discussions on this issue.


Gregory Washington