Administration responds to Black VCU Speaks

Photo by Travis Ellison
Photo by Travis Ellison

A typed manuscript, a functional blueprint for the purposes and precedents this university should serve, is in some ways an eerie call to action from inside the James Cabell Branch Library’s Special Collections and Archives.

“A university is a living, evolving institution which must continually review its role if it is to serve effectively the society of which it is a part,” reads the 1967 Wayne Commission’s report to the Virginia General Assembly dictating the necessity of the first public institution of higher education in the heart of Richmond.

Nearly five decades later, some four floors below where the document now resides, hundreds of university students stood in solidarity with students at the University of Missouri last Wednesday in the Compass.

The next day, a group of black student leaders and activists presented to President Michael Rao a list of demands they sought from VCU.

“As black students at a PWI (predominantly white institution) located in the capital of what was once the Confederacy, what the black students at Mizzou are currently experiencing could someday be VCU if further progressive action is not taken in resolving many of the issues here at VCU that present a clear and present danger to students of color,” reads the letter predicating the students’ demands of Rao and the broader institution.

Photo by Travis Ellison
Photo by Travis Ellison

The students’ statement goes on to recognize that while racial tensions on VCU’s campuses do not parallel those at the University of Missouri, VCU has failed black students on many levels.

The group’s subsequent demands fall into three categories pertaining to underrepresented black faculty, black students’ experience and the overall campus climate.

Among these demands were an increase in the percentage of black faculty from 4.7 percent to 10 percent by the 2017-18 academic year, as well as a proportionate increase in the number of tenured black professors to the overall increase in faculty, taking into account those who retire or leave the university.

The students also stated a need for the creation of a required cultural competency and diversity training for students and the hiring of a non-white, non-male ombudsman that will create a space where students know their experiences and concerns will be taken seriously and handled accordingly.

Lastly, they demanded priority funding specifically for diversity and multicultural student centers, organizations and programs to meet the needs of the student population and students of color.

Photo by Brooke Marsh
Photo by Brooke Marsh

“We are tired of hearing about year old ‘initiatives’ that are never set into action, given measurable outcomes, and/or accountable deadlines. We are tired of the impromptu ‘diversity dialogues’ that are created just to appease us for the time being. We are tired of lackluster sense of urgency surrounding these issues,” reads the group’s statement. “We will no longer be pushed to the side. We matter.”

The student organizers’ list of demands and sit-in at the office of the president caused a stir on social media, was picked up by larger local and national media outlets and, in some cases, generated backlash from the community.

“Like campus demands in the past, theirs seem somewhat unfair, unreasonable, intolerant even,” wrote CBS6 reporter Mark Holmberg of the students in an editorial for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We can’t keep focusing on a tiny number of idiots mumbling words when we should know that sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us,” Holmberg said.

But it seems the very document responsible for the establishment of VCU as an institution of higher learning disagrees with the premises of Holmberg’s disenchantment.

The Wayne Commission’s 1967 report very specifically reinforces the necessity and functionality of an urban institution that embraces exactly what the collective group of black students presented last week.

“Inherent in these questions are implications for social usefulness, equal opportunity, suitability of programs and policies, and the normally accepted functions of a university as research, teaching and application of knowledge,” the Commission wrote in 1967.

Photo by Travis Ellison
Photo by Travis Ellison

The report goes on to state that these goals are more or less shared by many, if not most, institutions of higher education though the latter is “often neglected in practice or it remains in the area of lip-service.”

Rather, what the Commission said distinguishes a university is not so much the degree of its endorsement of broad goals of higher education, but the nature of its more specific aims, resulting from its historical development, location and hopes for the future shaping its particular purposes and individual goals.

“In summary it is clear that the urban university is an evolving institution,” states page 34 of the Commission report. “It must, if it is to serve the new role so necessary in a metropolitan society, be responsive to mass higher education needs and it must educate for fuller participation in the urban world. While providing for specialization, this university must also educate for diversity.”

The rally of Black VCU Speaks does not sound so different from the 48-year-old document.

“We understand change cannot be created overnight and this is only the beginning. Virginia Commonwealth University prides itself in being all about embracing diversity; Virginia Commonwealth University says it is about its students. Let’s see it, and take action now,” concluded the students who penned the letter to university administration outlining their demands for action last week.

And the authors of the Wayne Commission’s 1967 report would probably be proud of the response by administration and senior leadership now at the helm of the university.

“We’re a learning community and that means that faculty and administration are learning too,” said Kevin Allison, the senior assistant to Rao. “I think part of the dialogue was as the students indicated — certain changes are not going to occur overnight. But they also want to understand action — what is going to occur.”

Photo by Brooke Marsh
Photo by Brooke Marsh

Allison said he thinks part of the problem is a failure on behalf of the university to communicate what has already been done to already to address some of the issues the students raised.

“Does more work need to be done? Yes. Has some work been done? Yes,” Allison said. “What this opportunity provides is to gain clarity and another voice, in terms of continuous opportunities to support the development of our community.”

In light of the demonstration in the Compass last week, Rao sent an email to the VCU community announcing a Diversity and Inclusion forum on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. in the Student Commons, Richmond Salons 3 and 4.

Allison said the specifics of the forum are still in planning, although Rao will deliver remarks and the majority of the president’s cabinet and some Board of Visitors members will be in attendance.

“The ways our students have been going about doing this is encouraging, positive and necessary,” said Aashir Nasim, the inaugural director of the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation at VCU (iCubed).

When students are coming to faculty, staff, administration — they’re saying ‘these are the things we’ve realized and these are the things having a negative impact on us, these are the things we need to change’ — and yes, they do need to change,” Nasim said.

One of those necessities is the students’ demand for increases in black faculty. Nasim said that while he doesn’t think there’s a “magic number” in terms of faculty, there is a need for improvement in the numbers at the university.

“And we know why,” Nasim said. “We know faculty are exemplary in their teaching, research and service, but they also provide a role in mentoring students and bringing diverse perspectives and communities of knowledge to the classroom. Faculty, particularly those from underrepresented groups, contribute to that in significant and meaningful ways.”

Nasim’s institution resides under the office of the provost and was established in July of this year. iCubed aims to promote diversity and inclusion through strategic investment in academic programs and focus on the welfare of urban populations.

Nasim said that while there have been a number of different university initiatives to better address diversity in the past, the degree to which they’ve been coordinated or fully integrated is questionable.

In the past year, at least, Nasim said he thinks this the university’s approach has begun to change from addressing “cosmetic diversity” — attempts to perhaps look more diverse than the institution actually is — to addressing ways that inclusion has a meaningful impact for students and the surrounding community.

Furthermore, Nasim said the university is beginning to shift from being reactive in the wake of certain events, to engaging in proactive and holistic measures.

“That’s a fundamental and structural change,” Nasim said. “The leadership has been there, but the focus is now renewed for us to match our words with our actions,” he said.

But for some students, the university’s actions still ring hollow. Student Attalah Shabazz said some, if not all, students feel that administration and senior leadership, including Allison from the president’s leadership team, showed up at last Wednesday’s demonstration in the Compass to “save face.”

Photo by Travis Ellison
Photo by Travis Ellison

Another administrator who made an appearance in the Compass was Wanda Mitchell, VCU’s vice president for Inclusive Excellence.

“For me, it’s looking at the climate,” Mitchell said. “We’re here to really advance student success and if the climate and intergroup relations don’t promote that, we need to take a serious look at that, and I think we can expedite and do that more informed now because of some of the things articulated during the session (at Rao’s office) and the rally they had.”

Mitchell said several of the demands brought forth by the students are priorities for her, and one thing her division is specifically looking at is the need for increased cultural competency initiatives.

According to Mitchell, on Nov. 2, the president’s cabinet endorsed “inclusion and equity training for cabinet members,” and she hopes to implement the measure in the spring semester.

Mitchell said 60 campus members completed similar National Coalition Institute (NCBI) training in June of this year, and she hopes to advance that.

“One young lady gave me her sign,” Mitchell said of her presence at the Compass last week. “I think it said, ‘Do I offend you because of my blackness?’ and I held that sign the whole time. I commend the students for their action, and we’re doing the work, but to have another perspective on better ways of doing that work — I always welcome that,” Mitchell said.

For other university figures, their presence last Wednesday produced more visible tension. One student questioned VCU Police Chief John Venuti on what she perceived to be a strong police presence at the demonstration because the group was predominantly people of color.

Venuti said the factor driving any amount of police presence is the number of people at an event and the VCU PD show up to ensure the opportunity to exercise free speech. But 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 student Angelique Scott. “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 and a lot of work that we need to do about it.”

Venuti said in an interview on Friday that his word choice undermined his message.

“I want everyone at VCU to know my true intent was to try and move that conversation forward, not backward,” Venuti said. “What I said, I said with no disrespect, with no intent to marginalize, my purpose wasn’t to demean or insult anyone.”

Venuti acknowledged his role as a leader and role model on campus and claimed full responsibility for his words and actions.

Venuti said he personally attended the event because he wanted to build trust and collaboration with the students raising those issues, and can and is willing to help with those initiatives.

He added that every police department in the current political climate should be spending their time regaining the trust and partnership of the community because it’s been fractured “clear across the country.”

“For the students whose trust in me has diminished or been lost, I’ll work tirelessly to regain that trust,” Venuti said, “I wasn’t ordered to be there, I was there because I wanted to be there.”

The Chief added that the VCU PD have been attempting to make strides in hearing out the needs of students on campus. The department has held multiple listening sessions, some alongside the Richmond police.

“I create that open-forum structure so members of the community could tell me the issues that are important,” Venuti said, adding that the low turnout doesn’t change his dedication to hearing what the community has to say. “I’m there, I’ll listen whether it’s two students or 100,” Venuti said.

But in order for the community to trust what they hear, the organization must be transparent, Venuti added. To help increase this aspect of the force, officers now wear body cameras, which they began using at the beginning of this year.

Venuti said last year he was a guest lecturer for a class at VCU on Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown. He said his lecture lasted more than twice the length it was planned to, and he later offered the class an opportunity to use the police department’s firearms simulator.

Photo by Travis Ellison
Photo by Travis Ellison

“I think it was a really good experience for that class,” Venuti said, explaining how his department has significantly reduced its use of force since he took the helm in 2010.

Furthermore, Venuti, Allison, Mitchell and Nasim all stressed the importance of listening to the student voice and that black lives do matter.

“Black Lives Matter, in terms of a movement, is at a pivotal moment,” said Ashleigh Shackleford, a student studying business administration, “It’s important that we challenge institutions to center us in their initiatives, their funding, their decision making and representation,” Shackleford said during the sit-in at Rao’s office last week.

Shackleford stressed the importance of challenging the system to enact change.

“Change is not easy — for the nation, much less a university, but it’s necessary,” Nasim said. “For our students to exhibit this courage, self agency, to want to produce change at VCU, Mizzou, Yale, Berkley — that speaks volumes about their integrity, resilience.”

The authors of the Wayne Commission’s report, decades later, would likely agree.

“In addition to an increase in the number of opportunities, a new focus in higher education is needed,” states the introduction to the document that would establish VCU.

Rarely has any university been accorded a more timely opportunity to confront on an intellectual and practical level the social environment which surrounds it.”

 


Executive Editor, Sarah King

12043164_10154409820528747_3562469904289705643_nSarah is a junior in the honors college studying political science and philosophy of law. Last spring, Sarah worked as an editorial intern for “CQ Researcher” and “SAGE Business Researcher” in Washington, D.C. Her independent work has been published on platforms including the Huffington Post, RVA Magazine and alongside her peers at Harvard, Brown and Columbia on knowyourix.org. Sarah’s primary nutrient is Redbull. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

kingsa@commonwealthtimes.org

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