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George Yancopoulos is a world-class scientist. The billionaire cofounder of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a Fortune 500 drugmaker with nearly $64 billion in market value, is the cofounder, president, and chief scientific officer of a company that has developed innovative treatments for conditions including cancer, arthritis, and high cholesterol. Now he’s facing heat for a controversial high school graduation speech that clashes with the ongoing public fury about police brutality and inequities faced by Black Americans.
Yancopoulos delivered the keynote commencement address at Yorktown High School in New York. The school is located less than 20 miles from Regeneron’s headquarters in Tarrytown (and counts Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as an alumna).
The veteran pharma chief and scientist challenged students to question what he called “popular narratives.” But his framing focused on social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter, rubbed many students and parents the wrong way.
“I believe Black lives matter, though it should not be a crime to say all lives matter,” Yancopoulos said during his speech. He went on to make several more statements seemingly defending police, saying that police were being “scapegoated” and that far larger systemic issues were at the root of Black people’s suffering. Yancopoulos also trudged out the common narrative that Black men are more likely to be killed by other Black men than by cops (a statement that misses the broader point of social inequality and the disproportionate power of the state to impose violence while minimizing protections for communities of color).
In one tense moment, several attendees—all of whom were gathered in their cars in the parking lot in order to maintain social distancing during COVID-19—began honking their horns in protest. Yancopoulous called this “an act of cowardice” and challenged the individuals to come up onto the stage.
None of this sat well with students, parents, or administrators who said the speech was highly politicized and intentionally divisive. Yorktown Schools superintendent Ron Hattar said, “Unexpected comments were made in that address that do not align with the principles of the Yorktown Central School District.”
Regeneron and Yancopoulos responded to the controversy. “I have had time to reflect on my remarks at the Yorktown High School graduation last weekend and have listened attentively to the reactions to my words,” he said in a statement emailed to Fortune through a company spokesperson. “My intent was to discuss how society has systematically over centuries contributed to many inequities, including in health care where significant disparities exist for Black Americans. I recognize I did not do this effectively, and I remain committed to listening and learning and to the belief that hate and prejudice in any form is wrong.”
Regeneron added that the company as a whole is committed to expanding its diversity and inclusion efforts, including among its leadership and through expanding the pool of job applicants it seeks within the Black community.