At VCUarts, complaints of ‘problematic’ environment lead to protest

Photo by Raelyn Fines

Fadel Allassan, News Editor

What started as an incident of perceived racial bias has become a rallying cry for students at VCUarts, who are demanding the university’s administration make changes to address what they describe as a non-inclusive environment within the school.

Students are voicing frustration with faculty and administration over issues they say began even before a professor stoked outrage when he called security on his black colleague in October.

For decades, the School of the Arts has been an emblem of distinction at VCU, recruiting top artists and faculty from across the country. Like the university at large, the school professes itself as diverse and welcoming. But last week, more than 40 students challenged that notion. During a sit-in protest at the Office of the Provost, they brought a list of demands regarding faculty they say have not fostered an inclusive environment for people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community.

“The arts school in general has had a lot of issues with faculty being discriminatory, making racist comments, things happening and not being reported, or things being reported and nothing happening as a result,” said Hannah Van Buskirk, a senior art history major and one of the sit-in organizers. “What we’re trying to do is force the school to listen to us.”

The demands include:

  • Mandatory training that “dismantles white supremacy and other systems of oppression for current faculty, staff and new hires”
  • 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

In a climate survey conducted in February, about half of the 243 students, faculty and staff who voluntarily responded reported having experienced or seen incidents of bias or mistreatment based on gender identity, race or color. Among those who reported such incidents, about two-thirds indicated the person responsible was a faculty member.

Several students in the painting and printmaking department said in interviews a lack of black professors is particularly detrimental at a time when black artists like herself are making identity-based art.

“At this point, I always get nervous about critique,” said Angelica Credle, a sophomore painting and printmaking major. “We get anxious because we don’t know if we’re going to get offended or not.”

Critiques are an integral part of the arts school. After students complete their projects, the work is presented to their classmates for feedback.

Credle took offense during a fall critique when a professor who she said is Asian told her she had “obstructed” black identity by not including the faces of black characters in a monoprint.  

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Credle said. “That’s not her place.”

Holly Alford, director of diversity and inclusion for VCUarts, said problems stemming from critiques are among the most common complaints she hears from students. In the past two semesters, Alford has organized voluntary training sessions tailored to artists, including one this semester aimed at critiquing work from other cultures.  

“I’m trying to ensure that it does not get to a point where we have students, faculty or staff members who consistently stay here and who are consistently doing things and sometimes do not realize what they are doing,” Alford said. “To me recognizing the bias is half the problem.”

Alford also organized two voluntary workshops for unconscious bias for the School of the Arts this semester. Alford organized a workshop for painting and printmaking faculty and graduate students last semester. All faculty and graduate students attended the workshop.

The School of the Arts also held a forum on inclusivity in March, which Alford said almost 200 people attended.

Alford is part of a university-wide task force aimed at curbing individual and systemic bias. The task force has four work groups focusing on diversity and education; communications, data systems and reporting; student and employee support; and accountability models.

For the most part, the work groups are either in the research or draft phases of developing recommendations for changing university policy, with no clear timeline for progress.

At last week’s sit-in, members of the university’s administration agreed to send timely updates on the task force’s developments to all arts students.

“I have that in writing,” Alford said.

Among the stated demands of students at the protest was that the demographics of VCUarts professors match the diversity of the student body by 2021.

In 2016, about 80% of the arts school’s 170 faculty members were white, according to university statistics. Black people made up about 5% of faculty. Hispanic or Latino, Asian and biracial faculty were about 4% and Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders made up fewer than 3% of faculty. There were no Native American professors.

“Are we working on it? Yes. Have we made improvements in the School of the Arts? Yes. Are we where we want to be? No,” Alford said. “There’s a lot of places where we aren’t where we want to be.”

For months, the issue of Javier Tapia, the professor who is suing university officials after he called security on his black colleague, has been hot-button on the third floor of the Fine Arts Building on Broad Street, which houses the painting and printmaking department.

Many students at the sit-in 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 on Tapia specifically, but divulged information on the process for removing tenured faculty.

Grace Ebacher-Rini, a sophomore class representative in the sculpture department who attended the sit-in, said she plans to meet with Gypsy Denzine, senior vice provost for faculty affairs, to discuss ways to get students involved in the tenure process.

Alford agreed to continue meetings with organizers of the sit-in, including Van Buskirk, Credle and Luis Vasquez La Roche, a first-year printing and printmaking graduate student, to discuss ways the school can meet the list of demands.

“Our students know how to creatively and artistically express themselves — I always say that,” Alford said. They have the ability to ensure that their educational needs are being met.”

Spectrum Editor Andrew Ringle contributed to this report.

 

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