Students, politicians, faculty and community members filled Old Cabell Hall on Tuesday night to hear former Vice President Mike Pence share thoughts and advocate for freedom at a speech at the University of Virginia.
People gathered hours before the speech waiting to get inside the venue. Matt Walker and Charlie Watts, students at Liberty University, were among the first in line.
“He’s the former vice president,” Watts said. “We couldn’t miss the chance to hear him speak.”
Walker said he was looking forward to hearing Pence’s perspective and to learn from him.
One woman waiting said she wanted to attend in order to hear someone tell the truth, while others in line said they wanted to hear what Pence had to say.
Along with those waiting to enter and hoping to attend stood University Police officers and security provided by RMC Events.
During his speech, Pence recounted his journey to serve as vice president under President Donald J. Trump and touched on his accomplishments, sprinkling in references to UVa’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. He paired that with criticisms of President Joe Biden’s administration and mentioned current events, including the war in Ukraine.
He also touched on the debates over what children should be taught in school, including critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the role of law in furthering racial inequities.
Pence is opposed to it.
“Critical race theory is nothing more than state-sanctioned racism,” he said.
He added that freedom is the antidote to “woke-ism.”
During the question and answer portion of the event, one UVa student lamented that the university’s tradition of excellence has been upended by the “woke left.”
The student specifically cited the recent NCAA national championships in swimming in which UVa swimmer Emma Weyant placed second to Penn State’s Lia Thomas. Thomas was the first transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship.
“Emma Weyant won that race,” Pence said, adding that the country needs to defend women’s sports.
Although he did not address the deadly Unite the Right rally that occurred during his tenure as vice president, advisors told reporters that Pence did visit the downtown memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Pence was invited to the University of Virginia by the local chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom. Pence has spoken at several universities recently as part of a lecture series through the national Young America’s Foundation. The Jefferson Council, an alumni group created to preserve Thomas Jefferson’s legacy at UVa, also sponsored the lecture.
The invitation sparked calls for Pence to be barred from speaking, and fueled discussions about who gets to speak on Grounds and also the limits of free speech.
UVa administrators said Pence should be able to speak and that the debates surrounding his visit show that free speech is “alive and well” on Grounds.
In an editorial, The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper, called for Pence’s speaking invitation to be rescinded. That editorial led to dueling letters to the editor from a group of faculty concerned about the stance as well as another group who supported the rescinding the invite.
Before the event began, a handful of people showed their opposition to Pence’s appearance by holding signs that declared “No Freedom til we’re equal” and “free to be LGBTQ.”
Andrew Chin, a fourth-year at UVa, said that he was planning to attend the lecture, but added that the fact Pence was speaking showed UVa is not invested in its students.
“Considering the diverse populations we have here, I think that it’s a slap in the face to us, honestly,” he said, “because you’re looking at this guy who has openly supported people who have made racist comments and homophobic statements.”
Chin added that UVa has a lot of LGBTQ students.
“It’s really harmful to students to bring this kind of figure to Grounds. The school is basically showing their support for it,” Chin said.
Although UVa administrators have called for an open debate of ideas, Chin said Pence’s lecture didn’t seem like it was meant to be a discussion.
“What he represents does not represent what the students stand on,” he said. “I think it really says a lot about the school and who they’re choosing to bring here or who they’re approving to come here.”
The University of Virginia chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and other organizations organized a separate teach-in in response to the Pence event.
“Recent events on Grounds have shown us, once again, the university is interested in serving and protecting those who have a proven track record of bringing harm to marginalized communities and their allies,” organizers said of the event.
Nick Cabrera, a UVa student who is part of Young Americans for Freedom, introduced Pence on Tuesday. He said last week that the group wanted to bring a different perspective to UVa.
“We encourage everyone to come out and ask questions, even if they might disagree with Pence or some of the things that Pence stands for,” Cabrera said. “We really want this lecture to serve as a discussion and a stepping point for the university in increasing intellectual diversity and open and free meaningful dialogue.”
In his speech, Pence noted the social and political divisions in the country and encouraged students to hold on to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as guides.
He added that UVa students have a special connection to the Declaration of Independence, given Thomas Jefferson’s role in both that document and the university.
“That’s your heritage and yours to cherish and hold,” he said.