Rao hosts town hall forum: “Reaffirming VCU’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion”

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

During a town hall meeting titled “Reaffirming VCU’s Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion” on Monday, VCU President Michael Rao faced questions on whether he could transform his vision into tangible accomplishments.

The meeting took place in the wake of Rao announcing an increase of student interviews, removing SAT requirements and the Great Place Initiative intended to further diversify the faculty, staff and student body while still retaining the school’s prestige and academics.

There were roughly 100 people in attendance, and the opening and closing statements were made by Vice President for Inclusive Excellence Wanda Mitchell.

“Advancing diversity and inclusion in higher education takes more than an institution’s will to engage the work,” Mitchell said in her introduction. “It requires strategic vision and leadership that is transformative and positions a university like VCU to be a leader in the competitive higher education environment.”

She spoke to Rao’s ongoing efforts and claimed his presidency has been an effective means of advancing the university and engaging the community.

“There are so many people who bring so much to the table because of the differences they bring as human beings,” Rao said. “So, I really do believe that it’s fundamental to our mission.”

Rao said that he has made it one of his missions to remain an inclusive and diverse research institution. Before opening the floor to questions and comments, he encouraged community participation in advancing this agenda.

“(If) you don’t get an opportunity to be exposed to, or to be challenged by, or to be a part of the conversations that aren’t so comfortable for you, I’m not sure if it’s as fulfilling as it could be,” Rao said.

Rao also took the time to remind the audience that his decision to no longer require SAT scores throughout VCU’s admissions process is a part of his push for inclusion.

The first attendee to participate, professor Allen Lee of the VCU School of Business, asked Rao what the best way to introduce an interested African-American professor from another university would be. Rao directed this question to the provost’s office, who was also at the event, and they responded that currently there’s no system in place that helps in the hiring of potential faculty.

They went on to say that this is something they intend to implement soon. This was a relevant inquiry, as the next attendee was Clarence Thomas, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Robertson School of Media and Culture.

“I’m in my 25th year at VCU. I’m the first and only African-American professor who is tenured in my field at VCU,” Thomas said, before silencing those who went on to applaud him. “That’s not a bragging point. The point is it’s 2015, and I’m the first and only African-American to be tenured in my field.”

Rao responded by saying that Thomas’ plight is that of many who attempt to become a member of the university’s community, and that the efforts put forth by him and his administration are working towards solving the issue Thomas pointed out.

The next speakers were Tennisha Riley and Ashley Hill of the Black Graduate Student Association.

“We heard (President Rao) talk a little bit about the effort to recruit undergraduate students of diversity here at VCU,” Riley said. “But we’re really concerned with graduate student recruiting as well as retention.”

They claimed that if VCU wishes to increase the diversity of the faculty at the university, an increase in the amount of graduate programs would allow students of different backgrounds to be competitive in those fields.

The Provost’s Office responded by saying that increases in the stipends provided to incoming graduate students has served to further the diversity at VCU. They also claimed that those rates of diversity are higher here at VCU than most other research institutes.

Members of the staff at the university questioned Rao on the lack of diversity in the higher-wage jobs that are available. He asserted that their inclusion was just as much a part of his push for diversity as was the diversity of the student body and the faculty.

Donna Coghill, a Teaching and Learning Librarian at VCU, said “I think it’s great how far VCU’s diversity statement has come, and you know that I’m very grateful for that, but I think as a university we need to remember that we can’t see diversity. Not every diverse group is obvious.”

She emphasized that many of the things which might make a potential candidate “diverse” beyond race and sexual orientation aren’t always seen on a resume. These things could include interested research topics, and ideas and approaches to certain issues. Coghill also said that the actual diversity statement is too difficult to find on the VCU website.

Before Rao could comment, Tarynn Witten, an associate professor at the VCU Medical Center, joined Coghill at the microphone and said, “I am VCU’s, as far as I know, only out transgender faculty member, and so you can imagine I’m kind of feeling alone.”

One of her major complaints was that in all the admissions brochures and images on the school’s website, there aren’t any images that depict LGBT students or any indication that they’d be accepted at the university.

“I will continue to say this again and again and again, I’m talking, without question, about embracing human beings, all human beings, and embracing all of the ways human beings are different,” Rao responded. “You’re right. There is not a very broad conversation about transgender — ”

It was at this point that Witten again interrupted to point out that Rao must address all genders and gender expressions, and that she was only using herself and her gender as an example. Witten and Coghill went on to reiterate that the university must continue to include all walks of life, and not limit themselves to a single group.

Closing statements by Wanda Mitchell reassured the audience that all comments and questions will be taken into consideration while the administration continues its efforts to include all people.

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