Earlier this year, a New York Times article drew comparisons between today’s cultural and political turmoil with that of 1968 — coincidentally the year two institutions merged to create VCU.
When the Wayne Commission Report combined the Medical College of Virginia and the Richmond Professional Institute to create what is now a 31,000-student research university, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated and protests against the Vietnam War were rampant. VCU was founded during one of the most tumultuous times in American history and celebrates its 50-year anniversary during a similar period.
“It is within this context, that VCU becomes a place,” said associate history professor John Kneebone at a symposium recalling the university’s history. “The challenges of that moment required the creation of Virginia’s first urban university.”
The history symposium titled “Commemorating History: Challenges and Opportunities” explored achievements made by the school, the 1968 merger and how the university will commemorate its past. The panelists included esteemed historians, President Michael Rao, past university presidents and other VCU and VCU Health community members.
University developments — such as the creation of the College of Engineering, which opened in 1996 — were a key point in the discussion. According to VCU President Emeritus Eugene Trani, Richmond was the largest city in the country at the time without a school of engineering.
“I believe that is something that impeded economic development for the city of Richmond,” Trani said. “There was a sense in the mid-‘60s that Virginia’s future was going to be urban and industrial. I think the Wayne Commission set the framework for what my predecessors … were working for, which was for an integrated university.”
A cross-generational panel held during the symposium addressed student concerns about inclusivity on campus. Liz Canfield — a three-time VCU degree holder and a professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program — moderated the panel.
Charles Mcleod, an alumnus and former faculty member, grabbed the attention of the audience and other panelists with his introduction.
“I’m here because I’m probably the oldest in the room,” Mcleod said.
Mcleod left Virginia State College to play basketball for RPI in 1966. Mcleod and five other male African-American students created the first African-American student organization at VCU.
“My 15 minutes of fame was when we presented our demands to the university president,” Mcleod said. “The demands were essentially to improve the quality of black life so this experience would be more valuable for black students.”
Mcleod described the mid-‘60s VCU he attended as “a piece of white bread university.” Now, racial minorities make up almost half the student body.
Chaz Barracks, a doctoral student in the Media, Art and Text program, discussed looking beyond the buzzwords and cosmetic diversity and discover what is really happening at the university.
“Diversity is typically on the bottom, it’s never as much on the top,” Barracks said. “I am one of two black men in our doctoral program.”
Pharmacy school graduate and doctoral student Elena Fernandez said health students are so immersed in their studies and getting ahead that they often ignore the world around them.
“There is a culture of not talking about what goes on beyond the walls of pharmacy school,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez was the only Latina student in her graduating class. During the 2016 election, Fernandez said she was especially aware of the silence on current events. But she was not complacent with that silence.
“I had the opportunity to serve as an ambassador for student excellence on diversity inclusion on MCV campus,” Fernandez said. “The ambassadors worked together to try and answer the question, ‘How do we become allies for each other?’”
She talked about the importance of pipeline programs and helping underrepresented communities become interested in doctoral programs. She said she hopes universities will work toward recognizing the value of skilled students and make sure the students are aware of their value.
The symposium also addressed how universities should handle controversies and protests within the current political climate — for example, dealing with Richmond’s history of commemorating Confederate leaders.
The statues stand as close to VCU as Monroe Park. Monuments of former Confederate congressman and Confederate brigadier general Williams Carter Wickham and former Virginia governor and Confederate major general Fitzhugh Lee stand across the street from four large VCU residence halls and numerous classroom buildings.
“Memorials need to look forward as much as they look backward,” said Kent State University President Beverly Warren. “As much as we can set the context, we need to be sharing what is our hope for the future.”