— Commonwealth Times (@theCT) November 11, 2015
As Wednesday’s noon classes convened, VCU students assembled in the Compass to stand in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri and voice perspectives on issues of race in universities settings, including VCU.
Some students carried signs and spoke publicly about the events unfolding at U. Mo., where the university president recently resigned amidst controversy surrounding racially motivated controversies on Missouri’s campus.
Wednesday’s event was organized by a collective group of black students at VCU. The students who chose to speak out noted similarities between racial issues at Missouri and at VCU.
“I’m a transfer student from Louisiana State University, where there was a lot of racism,” one student shouted out to the crowd, “One of the reasons I came to VCU was that it’s supposed to be diverse, but when I got here I noticed we have the same problems.”
About half an hour into the demonstration, representatives from the Office of the President and the VCU Police joined the students and began fielding questions.
Wanda Mitchell, vice president for Inclusive Excellence gave a brief statement and proceeded to take questions from those congregated in the Compass alongside VCU Police chief John Venuti.
While the protest in the Compass continued, the VCU community received an email from President Michael Rao regarding the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, especially in light of the recent incidents at U. Mo.
“At Virginia Commonwealth University, we welcome such conversations because we know they help shape our world into something better: A place that is open and transparent, where all forms of diversity are valued, and where all people from all backgrounds have a voice in leading,” read Rao’s email.
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The email continued by saying VCU’s commitment to diversity is unrelenting and the student body is the most diverse of any university in Virginia.
“One of the most important voices in this national conversation is our students’, and I am proud of the civil and productive ways they are making themselves heard. Open dialogue is critical in any discussion, and VCU will always support everyone’s right to voice their concerns,” the email stated.
Meanwhile, in the Compass, the dialogue between several students and VCU Police chief Venuti produced some tension, as one student questioned Venuti on what she perceived to be a strong police presence at the demonstration because the group was predominantly people of color.
“I noticed there’s a lot of police presence, but I’ve seen a lot of rallies for student debt or homosexual rights. Why are there no police for that but when there’s a rally with predominantly people of color, feds come out of the woodwork?” the student asked the Chief.
Venuti said the factor driving any amount of police presence is the number of people at an event. He said the VCU PD show up to ensure the opportunity to exercise free speech.
“I can tell you that I’m here today because I want to be here, I’m not here cause i have to be here or someone told me to be here. I’m here to help you if you need my help,” Venuti said.
Tension increased as members of the crowd responded with fury as Venuti answered a question from the crowd in a response which allegedly included the words “you people.”
“You people?” one student screamed as she broke down in tears and students rushed to console her. “We’re here talking about this and you’re going to say ‘you people?’”
“We didn’t ask (Venuti) to come here,” said junior Angelique Scott, regarding Venuti’s alleged word choice. “He may not have meant to use that type of word choice, but it just goes to show that there’s a lot of subconscious institutionalized racism that a lot of work that we need to do about it.”
Scott also asked Mitchell pointed questions regarding VCU’s efforts to expand diversity and inclusion at the university.
“Can you talk about the state of black faculty at VCU? They don’t have tenure. Most of the black faculty here are adjunct,” Scott asked, as the crowd cheered her on.
Mitchell responded by saying the numbers of faculty who are adjunct and tenured reflect there’s a lot of work to do and the university is starting the process.
In December 2014, Mitchell presented to the Board of Visitors regarding this topic. In her presentation, Mitchell stated VCU’s faculty consisted of 706 tenured professors in Fall 2014. Of those, 564 were White, 74 were Asian, 37 Black/African American and 14 Hispanic/Latino.
President Michael Rao also visited this during last year’s annual State of the University address. During his speech, Rao addressed the university’s commitment “without compromise” to strengthen diversity and accessibility for students and faculty.
“Our diversity has made us a national model, and now we strive to shape the national conscience,” Rao said. “To do that, we’ve got to continue enhancing diversity at VCU in all its forms.”
Another student asked Mitchell if the university was making efforts to ensure the current faculty were “culturally competent.”
“I think what we see with the situation that you’re bringing light to is that you cannot be a leader, a teacher, or faculty member in higher education without having those skill sets because it will haunt you at the end of the day,” Mitchell responded. “We are working on those things; you can check our website for those.”
Mitchell told the CT she thought Wednesday’s demonstration was positive.
“I think it speaks to the power of student activism and the student movement,” Mitchell said. “I came out today because it’s important to me. We have a lot to do around diversity and inclusion.”