Students express anger at forum after racial profiling incident

Photo by Erin Edgerton

Sarah Elson

Contributing Writer

University administration hosted a dialogue discussion Monday about inclusivity in response to students demanding the university address the racial profiling incident between white Hispanic professor Javier Tapia and black visiting professor Caitlin Cherry.

According to Cherry, Tapia saw her in a classroom of the Fine Arts Building and — having not recognized her as a fellow professor — called a security guard in an attempt to verify her identity. The October incident sparked outrage among students, faculty and other VCU community members. Tapia has not yet commented on the incident.

The forum was advertised to all students via mass email and held in the University Student Commons. The discussion was also made available to students through a live stream service for those who could not attend the noon-1:30 p.m. timeslot. Vice President for the Division of Inclusive Excellence Aashir Nasim hosted the discussion.

Nasim relayed VCU’s official commitments to diversity on and off campus. Students frustrated with President Michael Rao’s absence continuously interrupted Nasim during his opening remarks — calling for Rao to make an appearance and for the open discussion to begin.

Students demanded to know when another discussion was to be held that included the president. When Nasim asked students consider offering “compassion” and “forgiveness,” members of the crowd said “no” in unison.

VCU sophomore Sam Taylor asked when or if Rao would attend a future forum. Nasim said he could not answer the question.

Taylor asked for clarification after an administrator mentioned the university “moving forward” in regard to diversity and inclusion.

“Does that mean we are moving past this incident? Or does that mean we’re implementing a system for reporting incidents on campus?” Taylor said. “Because right now there is no coherent or cohesive system … [for] reporting incidents. That is a huge problem that I think should be addressed immediately.”

Nasim referred to the changes that VCU is attempting to implement, including creating a task force to tackle the discrimination and racial profiling students and faculty have experienced on campus. Some audience members voiced concerns about a new task force, citing a 2015 task force that tackled declining enrollment in minority students.

Ravi Perry, VCU professor and chair of VCU’s political science department, spoke about his concerns as a black professor on a campus that has had attracted national attention over the allegedly racist incident.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m embarrassed,” Perry said. “It’s embarrassing to work at an institution that has a national news story … talking about, presumably, how we treat black faculty members.”

Another demand brought up by students was to mandate diversity training for all VCU professors. Nasim responded that VCU staff must be able to work around shared governance.

“I really wish and hope that we can have this as a mandate or a requirement — because that would make my life a little bit easier,” Nasim said. “We have to be able to work around issues of academic freedom to make sure that, when we implement these types of things, that people do feel like this is in their best interest and not impinging on their values of freedom as a faculty or staff person.”

Gia Keaton, a graduate student in the painting and printmaking department, recently resigned from her position as Tapia’s teaching assistant. Keaton questioned why diversity trainings could not be implemented.

“I don’t know why VCU is prioritizing the experience of professors over the experience of students that they supposedly serve — and that pay to come here,” Keaton said.

Cara Benedetto, a professor in the Painting and Printmaking department, said not much has changed in regard to the lack of administrative help during investigations of faculty misbehavior in the four years she has been at VCU .

“It makes it a very hostile work environment and I’m wondering how we’re supposed to ask our students to be vulnerable in a learning environment that doesn’t support them. I’m looking for language and I’m looking for concrete next steps,” Benedetto. “I can’t work here if this is what it is going to be like.

A student from the audience asked about the state of Tapia’s employment, as he has not been present in his class.

“I can’t answer that question,” Nasim said.

According to a Monday ABC 8 News report, the university confirmed to the station  that Tapia is still employed at VCU.

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