VCU art professor who called security on black colleague sues university officials

Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

A VCUarts professor who called security on a black colleague in October is suing university officials, including President Michael Rao, claiming they have silenced him despite having been cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation.

Painting and printmaking professor Javier Tapia was placed on administrative leave less than a month after he called security on Caitlin Cherry, who teaches in the same department. Since then, he has not not been allowed any contact with university employees or students, according to a federal complaint filed in December.

The lawsuit states the university is denying Tapia’s right to free speech without explanation with a ban that is “breathtaking in its scope.”

In addition to being prohibited from talking to students, the lawsuit says Tapia cannot post comments on social media about President Donald Trump, an exhibition at a Richmond museum, a statement by the Pope, South American politics or anything related to people affiliated with VCU.

Tapia filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia in December.

“The order hangs like a sword of Damocles over Tapia’s First Amendment freedoms,” the lawsuit states.

Cherry filed a racial discrimination complaint on the day of the incident. The lawsuit states investigators from Equity and Access Services interviewed witnesses, reviewed documents and visited the site of the incident from Oct. 29 to Nov. 14. While the university didn’t publicly share the findings of the investigation, the lawsuit says it did not find evidence Tapia had called security because of Cherry’s race. Tapia and Cherry were both told the findings of the investigation.

On Nov. 19, the university put Tapia on administrative leave. It was during this time, the lawsuit states, he had the ban placed on him.  

Tapia was placed on administrative leave on Nov. 18.

Two of Tapia’s classes are now displayed in VCU’s course selection system, indicating he may return to teaching in August. Several students in the art department have shared a social media graphic telling students to boycott the classes.

Shawn Brixey, the dean of the arts school, and Noah Simblist, chair of the painting and printmaking department, are named as defendants in the lawsuit. A VCUarts spokesperson confirmed Tapia is still employed by the university, but declined further comment.

The fallout from the incident and ensuing lawsuit has shaken the painting and printmaking department, one of the most reputable at VCU. In November, nearly the entire painting and printmaking faculty signed a letter supporting Cherry and stating Tapia had acted in a prejudiced manner.

“It’s kind of hard not to be involved in the sense that I am in this department,” said senior Randi Behan. “I have not taken actual action, but I have been around all of it.”

Many of the department’s professors discussed the events in their classrooms and consoled students who felt Tapia’s presence produced a toxic environment.

“Even though the investigation said that he did not do anything wrong, the disruption that it caused when it happened — there were students crying,” said Luis Vasquez La Roche, a first-year graduate student. “There were students that didn’t want to come back, and even his presence in the hallway used to disturb other classes.”

Now, students are bracing themselves for Tapia’s imminent return. Wansu Kang, a senior who has taken Tapia’s class, said she never saw signs that he was racist. Despite this, Kang said, he should not return.

“I don’t know why he is coming back here,” Kang said. “I just feel like if he is going to come back, he is going to make such unwelcoming environment and awkward feeling.”

Some other students said Tapia has showed signs of micro-aggressive behavior in the past. The latest incident has compounded to what some students have described as the professor’s reputation of being insensitive and out of touch.

“How are we going to tell students of color, how are we going to

On October 28, Noah Simblist, chair of the Department of Painting and Printmaking, sent a letter to students and faculty notifying them of the incident between Tapia and Cherry.

a tell trans students, how are we gonna tell queer students that they have to take his course to graduate?” Vasquez La Roche said. “This person who doesn’t think about their subjectivity whatsoever.”

Tapia has been a professor in the Department of Painting and Printmaking since 1988 and was awarded tenure in 1996. The lawsuit states that Tapia “loves his career as an artist and educator and has no intention to retire.”

“It has affected everyone just to know that he’s coming back,” Vasquez La Roche said. “I’ve seen grads and undergrads crying.”

Tapia could not be reached for comment.

Cherry, who is named “Professor X” in the lawsuit, was eating breakfast in a room reserved for faculty and graduate students on Oct. 25 when Tapia entered the room. While the lawsuit says the two greeted each other when Tapia entered, Cherry told The Commonwealth Times in November that Tapia did not respond to her greeting. Ten minutes later, a school security officer entered the room and asked Cherry to see her identification.

Cherry said she believed Tapia had called security on her because she is black. The lawsuit says Tapia called security because he thought she was a student.

Cherry declined to comment.

The event prompted outrage among students and an apology from the arts department in an email to students. It came amid a string of instances of white people calling authorities on black people doing ordinary activities, like holding a barbecue in a public park. Many of the incidents have gone viral on social media.



  1. Once more, we see that many of today’s college students are incredibly weak. When I attended a university, a controversy was something that inspired students to perhaps bristle and speak out, but never to weep. What will these students do when they enter the working world and come up against an obstacle? Weep? They should be fighting, for what they believe is right and just. As for the controversy, Why do so many reject the professor’s argument that he thought the colleague was a student and therefore not qualified to be present. Had he ever shown any previous animosity to those of another race? We hear of none. And why do some immediately lump in supposed harm to people based on their gender identity? It seems some people are waiting — on a hair trigger — to take offense at any perceived bias, whether real or just perceived.

    • I have known Javier Tapia as both a colleague and a friend for years, and I have found him to be a particularly generous person who went out his way to help me when asked. Unlike the medical campus faculty, most if not all faulty distain from wearing name identification tags. Javier did not know the person in question he found in an area that is reserved for faculty and graduate students. He like all other professors in Art School know how damaging it is if a valuable piece of equipment is stolen and how difficult it can be to get a replacement. I believe he did the correct thing by taking his concern to the authorities rather than confronting the new faculty he did not know.

      In case anyone failed to notice, Javier is Hispanic. He would certainly know what difficulties minorities face. It seems to me that far too much has been made of this, that this issue should have been handled quietly by the administration, and that he has been treated poorly by the members of his own department all to the detriment of the School.

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