Fadel Allassan, News Editor
Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor
More than 40 students, mostly of the School of the Arts, staged a protest in the office of the provost today, carrying a list of demands regarding faculty they say have not fostered an inclusive environment.
Among the concerns were objections to the possible return of Javier Tapia, the professor who was placed on leave after he called security on his black colleague in October and is now suing university officials.
For more than three hours, the students occupied the lobby of Ginter House, which houses the office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Gail Hackett, who was not present.
The students demanded:
- Mandatory training that “dismantles white supremacy and other systems of oppression for current faculty, staff and new hires”
•That the demographics of VCUarts professors match the diversity of the student body by 2021
•The creation of a template for inclusive curricula or syllabi that include people of color, LGBTQ and non-western perspectives
•An additional course evaluation in the middle of the semester
•A midterm student climate survey to assess students’ satisfaction with their learning environment
Gypsy Denzine, the senior vice provost for faculty affairs; Curtis Erwin, associate vice provost for student affairs, and Aashir Nasim, the vice president for inclusive excellence, fielded questions from students.
Most students asked about how they could prevent Tapia from returning to campus and whether it was possible to remove his tenure status. University officials declined to comment about Tapia.
“When this all happened, did you take this home?” one student asked administrators. “Did it bother you too? Because this has been nothing but the conversation among us, outside of studio. I would like to know if you took it home as a stresser.”
“Yes, I have an emotional reaction when I hear people today saying, ‘I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel valued, I don’t feel like I can walk in my own academic classroom, I don’t feel like I can do the work that’s required of me to get my degree,” Erwin said. “I have an emotional response to that.”
The saga involving Javier Tapia has rattled the painting and printmaking department, one of the most prominent at VCUarts. But students said the School of Arts, which houses the painting and printmaking department, has a broader issue with professors who are racially insensitive and hostile to students in the LGBTQ community.
“We get that you know that we’re upset, but we’re, like, sick over this,” one student said. “We’re losing sleep over this. We’re mentally ill.”
At one point, a student asked if any university officials in the room were their allies. Andrew Arroyo, the director for academic programs and policy, responded by saying his daughter, who is white, had an uncomfortable experience at Norfolk State University, which is predominantly black.
“What she felt in that moment is nothing in comparison with what students of color experience. Because her experience on that campus is as a temporary minority,” Arroyo said. “So, the minute she walks off that campus she has privilege … But she doesn’t struggle because of the color of her skin. And she recognizes because of that she’s got privilege all the way down the line.”
“I didn’t come here for a lecture,” said one student.
“It’s not a lecture,” Arroyo responded “I’m the parent of a college student … I’m sharing my personal experience.”
Another student yelled to Arroyo that he was “taking up too much space.” Arroyo later said he learned “a lot” from the exchange, and called his prior statements “clumsy.”
Students demanded to speak to Rao directly, and officials in the room responded that he was out of town. When students demanded to get him on the phone, Denzi called his office and asked how she could reach him.
Denzi asked over the phone if there were policies that would prohibit her from obtaining Rao’s personal cell phone, before hanging up and saying Rao could not be reached.
“I’m proud of them,” said Noah Simblist, the painting and printmaking chair, who watched the sit-in. “I think it’s really important work they’re doing taking agency and leadership in shaping the conditions of their own education … We have been failing them as a university, as a school and as a department. It’s part of my responsibility to work toward a number of changes.”
Simblist is among three officials named in Tapia’s lawsuit, along with Rao and Shawn Brixey, the dean of the School of Arts.
Deborah Noble-Triplett, senior vice provost for academic affairs, told the protesters she was inspired by their work.
“To see, quite frankly, the number of years that have passed … as an African American woman in administration, to see students still struggling,” Noble Triplett said. “As a woman of color, having been through everything that I’ve been through, I would so desire that students don’t have to endure what I know that I tried to progress as a student.”
Luis Vasquez La Roche, a first-year graduate student who helped organize the sit-in, said he and other students will meet with Holly Alford, the director of diversity and inclusion for VCUarts, to continue the discussion.