VCUarts professor accused of racial profiling will not return to teaching this year

Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Christina Amano-Dolan, Contributing Writer

VCUarts professor Javier Tapia will not be teaching this academic year — but will remain a tenured professor — following a racial profiling investigation and lawsuit he filed against the university.

The School of the Arts Dean Shawn Brixey, one of the defendants in the suit filed by Tapia, stepped down at the beginning of the month.

Associate Dean Nancy Scott was appointed acting dean until an interim dean is announced. A national search is being conducted, but it remains unclear when the position will be permanently filled. 

Brixey will remain a tenured faculty member in the School of the Arts and an affiliate faculty member at the College of Engineering, focusing on creative research and other activities. 

Brixey told the Richmond Times-Dispatch speculation that his resignation is related to Tapia’s lawsuit is “baseless and has nothing to do with the decision.”

Tapia, a painting and printmaking professor who has taught at VCU since 1988, called security on Caitlin Cherry, a black visiting professor sitting in a secured lounge within the Fine Arts Building. Believing his actions were racially motivated, Cherry filed a racial discrimination complaint to university officals the same day.

“VCU anticipates that Professor Tapia will resume teaching duties at some point in the future, but that date has not yet been determined,” university spokesman Michael Porter said in an email.

Compiled by Christina Amano-Dolan. Infographic by Andy Caress.

Although an internal investigation conducted by VCU exonerated him of any wrongdoing, Tapia was placed on paid administrative leave on Nov. 19 pending further investigation. This prompted Tapia to file a lawsuit against several VCU officials and the university. The suit demanded a lift on his suspension and $1 million in damages. 

Following a dismissal of the lawsuit by mutual agreement in July, Tapia was removed from eServices, which students use to register for classes. He previously appeared on the site as the professor for two painting and printmaking courses. 

It remains unclear whether the decision to remove Tapia from the courses was a result of the settlement. Shortly afterward, the university announced Aug. 5 that Brixey would be stepping down.

As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the settlement agreement states that Tapia will spend three semesters on unpaid leave, starting this fall. In spring 2021, he will be on paid research leave for the semester, then placed on educational leave. In fall 2021, Tapia will be assigned a paid semester-long project, where he will develop techniques to potentially incorporate into the School of the Arts and new curriculums for his courses.

The university will pay $98,500 to cover Tapia’s attorney fees. 

In the months following the initial incident, a string of protests erupted from VCUarts students, including more than 40 students who flooded into the provost’s office in April for a sit-in with a detailed list of five demands:

  • Mandatory training for current faculty, staff, and new hires that “dismantles white supremacy and other systems of oppression”
  • The diversity of VCUarts professors reflects the diversity of the student body by 2021
  • The creation of a template for inclusive curriculums or syllabi that includes people of color, LGBTQIA, and non-western perspectives
  • An additional course evaluation in the middle of the semester
  • A midterm student climate survey to evaluate a student’s satisfaction with their learning environment

On May 1, the VCUarts Student Coalition, previously called the PAPR Student Coalition, organized a sit-in on the third floor of the Fine Arts Building. The coalition is a student organization that has spearheaded several protests following the incident between Tapia and Cherry. 

 “We the students of VCUarts will not tolerate problematic and discriminatory staff and faculty on our campus,” an Instagram post by the coalition stated. “Faculty who failed to facilitate an inclusive learning environment… outed transgender students, used incorrect pronouns or discriminated based on race/ gender/ sexuality/ nationality/ religion.”

On May 9, members of the VCUarts Student Coalition met with VCU President Michael Rao, Brixey, provost Gail Hackett and other officials as a result of the previous sit-in. 

It’s about changing the system. How does the system work in favor of the students?” painting and printmaking graduate student Luis Vasquez La Roche said in a phone interview. “My problem is beyond Tapia. My problem is with a majority of the faculty being white straight men and white straight women. How do we have representation for LGBTQA students?”

Some students in the painting and printmaking department remained outraged by Tapia’s actions throughout his suspension, and remained concerned about his return as a professor. 

“My classmates were just really outraged and shocked that a professor was blatantly racist toward another professor,” said sophomore and former VCUarts major Ellie Tappan. “They wanted change to be implemented so that kind of situation doesn’t happen again.”

Vasquez La Roche, who is also a member of the VCUarts Student Coalition, expressed his opinion on the pending selection of the new VCUarts dean.

“I’m not really concerned with dean Brixey stepping down or who comes in,” Vasquez La Roche said. “If a new person is going to come in and actually make change, good. But if the system is rigged, the issue will never be fighting the dean. The problem lies beyond them, and more in the system and the law.” 

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