It was a quiet affair about speech.
There was little fanfare Wednesday as the University of Virginia hosted Gov. Glenn Youngkin along with representatives from every public college in the commonwealth, as well as some private institutions, for a "Higher Education Summit on Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity."
The governor is so concerned about free speech on campus that his office spent more than a year planning the summit. The university, however, did not publicize the event, and it made no mention of the summit or the governor’s appearance on any UVa website.
“The bottom line is I’m extremely worried about the state of our college and university campuses today,” Youngkin told the crowd assembled in the ballroom of Newcomb Hall on Wednesday afternoon.
Today’s university students, he said, are afraid to express their viewpoints out of fear of retribution.
“How do we ask serious questions and foster informed debate so that we can importantly get to critical answers?” Youngkin asked the crowd. “We have to challenge conventional wisdom. Challenging beliefs and fostering an environment for these debates is exactly why we exist.”
A theme of the governor’s speech was “diversity of thought,” what’s become a buzzword in conservative circles. The governor called for more perspectives to be welcomed on campuses and argued that there is now less room for free speech at universities than in the past.
In making his argument, he cited a 2023 study from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, also known as FIRE, a nonprofit group that works to protect free speech on college campuses and has received major funding from conservative groups such as the Bradley Foundation and Charles Koch Institute. FIRE gave a 45-minute presentation not long after Youngkin left the stage Wednesday.
Some UVa faculty were alarmed by the event, in part because of a certain item on the agenda: a roundtable discussion in which “teams will develop a tangible plan including specific, measurable and attainable metrics.”
“How do you measure that? What would such a metric look like?” asked Kathryn Laughon, an associate professor at the UVa School of Nursing, speaking with The Daily Progress after Wednesday’s summit. “I have a hard time envisioning a metric that measures diversity of thought in such a way that is not itself oppressive."
Laughon was not in attendance Wednesday.
But the summit was especially concerning for her and other faculty, who declined to speak on the record with The Daily Progress, due to a proposal recently floated by members of the school’s governing Board of Visitors: tracking the political ideologies of faculty and students.
“Why wouldn’t we do that to try to convince ourselves that we have balance and that we’re serving the full range of needs from our constituents as a leading public university?” Douglas Wetmore, a Youngkin appointee, asked at a June Board of Visitors meeting.
“We have members of the Board of Visitors who have openly said we should be tracking faculty political ideology and now there was a summit with an agenda item that had to do with specific measurable and attainable metrics,” Laughon said. “It raises some alarm bells about what they mean by that.”
She also noted that the event was not widely publicized nor livestreamed, catching the university’s own faculty unawares.
“It’s just an interesting fact that I find somewhat concerning. Why would it not have been publicized? Things like this typically are. There are press releases. UVa would be proud to be hosting such an event,” Laughon said.
Michael Kennedy, who chairs the UVa Faculty Senate, was in attendance on Wednesday at the invitation of UVa President Jim Ryan. In an email, Kennedy told The Daily Progress he is not worried that faculty was excluded deliberately or otherwise. He said he plans to tell faculty what was discussed at the event and what was learned.
“If my colleagues say after I make my report they want to convene a similar institute on speech with matching leaders from other Virginia universities, I’d welcome the opportunity to lead or participate in such an event,” Kennedy wrote.
Asked how the event came together, the university said the summit was convened by the governor’s office.
“UVa was happy to provide the space and to have the Governor and so many presidents of Virginia colleges and universities on our Grounds to participate in working sessions on a topic that is so important in higher education and so essential to our history and identity as an institution,” university spokeswoman Bethanie Glover told The Daily Progress.
Ryan delivered the opening remarks Wednesday, while fourth-year J.D. and MBA student Peter Lee Hamilton introduced Youngkin on the stage.
Citing an international classmate of his, Hamilton said American students need more freedom to speak their minds.
“There’s a campaign in people’s eyes and faces where they want to silence you if you do not agree,” Hamilton said, quoting his classmate.
After speaking, he told The Daily Progress that sometimes his classmates don’t agree with his views; and that’s fine, he said, because it helps him learn.
“I think the issue is that when people are so afraid or the response is so disproportionate that it harms and limits the ability to engage in the productive conversation,” he said.
Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera told The Daily Progress students must be able to listen well and treat others with respect in order to have civil discourse.
“The future of our communities is dependent on universities getting this right and building a culture where people learn how to be exposed to ideas that they’ve never been exposed to,” Guidera told The Daily Progress.
Youngkin called free expression a hallmark of a free society, but then referenced the violence that occurred in 2017 before and during the Unite the Right rally-turned-riot. On Aug. 11 of that year, White supremacists marched across Grounds at UVa chanting "Blood and soil" and "Jews will not replace us," eventually leading to a violent confrontation with students and community members at the base of the statue of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson standing in front of the UVa Rotunda. The next day, the same marchers took their violence and vitriol to downtown Charlottesville, eventually killing anti-racist counterprotester Heather Heyer.
“We cannot look the other way or mask ourselves in protecting unbridled expression, while violent rhetoric escalates into visible violence,” Youngkin said. “This is hard. I know that.”
Laughon also referenced that violence when adding context to her concerns about the free speech summit.
“UVa was all about free speech, and they kind of fell for this idea that this was all free speech, and they let Nazis walk through the university because they felt like they couldn’t shut down this free expression of fascism," she said.
She noted that the organizers of the rally were UVa graduates.
“What is our responsibility in educating these men that held a literal fascist riot at our university and in our town,” she said. “So the idea that there is not enough free speech in that context, I think that’s where faculty get their hackles up.”
The summit included at least one representative from every public university and community college in the commonwealth as well as 17 of Virginia’s private institutions. Each was given a homework assignment.
“As part of today’s summit, the governor charged our higher education institutions to collaborate and create action plans to ensure free speech and intellectual diversity are hallmarks of a Virginia education,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told The Daily Progress.
“I cannot wait to read the final results,” Youngkin said.