VCU board, admins kill racial literacy requirement, students walk out of graduation the next day

Graduate Siatta Kaba speaks at a rally in Abner Clay Park after students walked out of VCU’s 2024 Spring Commencement. The walk out was in protest of Gov. Glenn Youngkin appearing as the ceremony’s keynote speaker. Photo by Andrew Kerley.

VCU’s Board of Visitors — the university’s highest decision-making body — rejected the implementation of a racial literacy course requirement in a 10–5 first-of-its-kind vote on Friday, May 10. 

The decision — in tandem with recent political events — led to students walking out of VCU’s 2024 Spring Commencement ceremony the following day.

The general education requirement would have mandated that every student take one of 12 courses focusing on systemic racism, diversity, equity and inclusion

The 12 courses fulfilling the racial literacy requirement will still be offered for the fall 2024 semester, but not required as originally planned.

The idea of a racial literacy requirement has been in the works at VCU for nearly a decade, according to Mignonne Guy, the former chair of the Department of African American studies. It was inspired by AFAM students concerned about others not being aware of the same information they were.

They were asking, “When will other students have to learn about this stuff?” Guy said.

Guy said she started working on the requirement in 2018, but paused because she was told it may negatively impact her tenure decision. After students continued to ask the same questions, she decided she couldn’t ignore it, and challenged President Michael Rao — and other college presidents — to implement a racial literacy requirement at a panel in 2019.

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, killing of Breonna Taylor and murder of George Floyd when students decided to take the lead and petition for the racial literacy requirement, according to Guy.

“They needed to do something about the injustices they were living through,” Guy stated. “This was a peaceful and positive way to effect change.”

The requirement went through a tumultuous four years of pushback from administrators. Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos postponed it just before it was to be implemented in the fall 2023 semester, according to a previous report by The Commonwealth Times. The provost said the requirement needed more courses and more course sections to seat what would be VCU’s largest first-year class ever — reasoning some faculty didn’t believe, as seating the entire class in one year was never their intention.

“If those reasons were true, then we had two years to come up with solutions for those particular problems,” said Amy Rector, a world studies professor who worked on the requirement, in a previous interview. “The fact that those didnʼt seem to come across the provost office as real concerns until three weeks before the start of the semester is an indication that theyʼre not real barriers.” 

Final preparations to implement the requirement in the fall 2024 semester were being made in February, according to the provost’s blog

Further attention was drawn when Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office requested to view syllabi for the proposed racial literacy courses in March, a move faculty called “unprecedented” and a threat to “academic freedom,” according to previous reports by The Commonwealth Times. The same requests were made for George Mason University’s similar “Just Societies” requirement. Students protested the requests by marching to Capitol Square in April.

After the governor’s requests, the Board of Visitors requested during a meeting on March 22 to view a presentation on the requirement in a future meeting, according to the Provost’s blog

The provost then informed faculty during a meeting in April that the Board would not allow the requirement — which had already been approved by the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee — to be implemented until they voted on it. The provost cited similar Board votes from years past as precedent saying the Board did in fact have the authority to vote on the requirement.

The VCU Board of Visitors is a body of 16 public figures appointed by the governor of Virginia. Many of the Board members have led companies, taken part in philanthropy or held public office. The Board approves faculty appointments, tenure decisions and curriculum changes. They also make recommendations to retain academic quality, according to their bylaws.  

The Board was set to vote on the requirement on Thursday, May 9. The discussion was not to be about the courses’ content, but whether or not to add another graduation mandate, the provost said. Regardless, some Board members still debated the courses’ content. After nearly two hours of debate, many Board members said they did not understand what the requirement entailed. Some Board members thought it was only one class, others did not know what content it was teaching. They motioned to review the details and vote on it the following day.

The Board ultimately rejected to implement the requirement in a 10-5 vote. 

Board members who voted to stop the implementation of the racial literacy requirement.
  • Rector Todd Haymore, Managing Director-Global Economic Development, Commerce and Government Relations, Hunton Andrews Kurth.
  • Vice-Rector Andy Florance, Founder, Director, President and CEO, CoStar Group.
  • Anthony Bedell, Senior Corporate and Government Relations Director, Becker’s Federal Lobbying Practice.
  • Rooz Dadabhoy, CEO, Data Concepts.
  • Steven DeLuca, Vice President, Head of State & Local Government Affairs, Capital One Financial.
  • Peter Farrell, Managing Partner, Tuckahoe Holdings.
  • Ellen Fitzsimmons, Former Chief Legal Officer and Head of Public Affairs, Truist Financial Corporation and CSX Corporation.
  • Dale Jones, Ph.D., Former Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer, Pennsylvania State University’s Wilkes Barre Campus.
  • Carmen Lomellin, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States.
  • P2 Sandhu, CEO, Sandhu Group.
Board members who voted to continue the implementation of the racial literacy requirement.
  • Ben Dendy, President of Vectre Corporation.
  • Edward McCoy, President and CEO of Eaheart Industrial Service Inc. 
  • Rev. Tyrone E. Nelson, Pastor at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church.
  • Keith Parker, CEO, Goodwill of North Georgia.
  • Tonya Parris-Wilkins, dentist, Virginia Board of Dentistry.
Board members who were absent
  • Clifton Peay, M.D., Founding Clinical Medical Director, American Eye Center

Six of the 10 Board members that voted “NO” were appointed by Youngkin. Three of them were appointed by Democratic governors. One of them, Peter Farell, was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and reappointed by Youngkin. All five of the Board members that voted “YES” were appointed by Democratic governors. 

Ben Dendy and Rev. Tyrone Nelson are two of the longest-serving members on the Board, Dendy having been first appointed in 2016 and Nelson in 2015. 

Dendy — whose term is up at the end of June — supported the racial literacy requirement in discussion and questioned if the Board should vote on it in the first place. 

“The faculty and the students have gone through a very lengthy process for the approval of the mandate for racial literacy,” Dendy said. “I just feel like at the end of the process the Board of Visitors should not interject itself.” 

Nelson said he “doesn’t remember having to vote on anything like this.” He argued if the requirement’s implementation is left up to the Board it becomes a “political decision.” 

“I don’t care what any of us say, we are political appointees,” Nelson told the Board. “This same Board four years ago probably would vote in a different way than we would vote today.” 

Todd Haymore, the Board’s chair, said he voted “NO” because he didn’t believe in imposing more graduation mandates on the student body, regardless of the courses’ content. 

VCU students currently must take 10 classes to fulfill their general education requirements. If the racial literacy requirement were implemented, it would have fulfilled one of the 10, not added another, Andrew Arroyo, the interim senior vice provost for academic affairs, explained in the Thursday meeting.

Students representing VCU’s NAACP chapter were in the room when the requirement was rejected. Ashley Brown, a vice president of the chapter, said the vote was “disheartening” and expressed frustration with Board members voting to end an initiative that many of them did not know of or understand. 

“It feels as if the voices of the people are not heard, and they’re stepped over,” Brown said.

President Rao and Provost Sotiropoulos both expressed their support for the racial literacy requirement in statements released shortly after the vote was held. 

Many students and faculty placed blame on Youngkin. Guy, on the other hand, scrutinized Rao, Sotiropulous and administrators in a statement sent to The Commonwealth Times. 

“Many faculty and students have admonished the BOV for overriding prior votes in support of the requirement by the same governing body. I would urge my colleagues to consider that, as we have seen across the country, Boards are often appointees by the state and thus riddled with political hacks that do not have the advanced education or expertise to make decisions about the structure or content of college curriculum. As noted by many faculty and students during the meeting on Friday, there were few intellectually sound and cogent arguments in opposition of the requirement. BOVs should be elected and educated by communities, students, faculty and staff of the institutions they are entrusted to guide. Those of us trained in observational studies examine both dialogue and actions. To listen to what an individual or body says but to also watch what they do as the two are often contradictory. In the case of the racial literacy requirement, the administration at VCU had four years to implement this initiative and time after time they manufactured crises to not do so because they did not want to implement this literacy. Yesterday’s meeting was a continuation of this pattern. This is the data that we’ve observed. A new and final manufactured crisis that clumsily undermines university messaging over the past few months admonishing a rise in hate and marginalization (both interrogated in the racial literacy requirement) reported across the country.  Two weeks ago, we observed VCU manufacture a crisis to enact intimidation and violence against peaceful protesters. Twice in two weeks the administration has demonstrated that they lack the will and moral certitude to stand on the right side of history. Most tragic is they have demonstrated that the lived experiences of our students do not matter.”

Students walk out of commencement over racial literacy decision, among other issues

Students were already planning to protest VCU’s 2024 Spring Commencement on Saturday, May 11, as Youngkin was set to appear as the keynote speaker. After the racial literacy decision and the police deconstruction of a pro-Palestine encampment, more student organizations released statements that decried VCU and Youngkin.

Approximately 100 VCU graduates walked out of the Greater Richmond Convention Center when Youngkin started speaking. 

The protest was organized by the “NotWelcomeAtVCU” campaign — a coalition of student groups that disagree with Youngkin on a multitude of issues including racial literacy, Palestine and LGBTQ+ rights. 

Many students, including the national anthem singer, wore keffiyehs, a type of headdress that has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, with their gowns. 

After leaving the building, undergraduate students joined graduates in a march to Abner Clay Park, chanting “You’re not welcome! Youngkin’s not welcome!” along the way. One student held up a sign that read “Governor Youngkin, stop erasing history + academic freedom” on one side and “VCU admin loves censorship. Provost Fotis, where is our academic freedom?” on the other.

Sereen Haddad, a Palestinian student and frequent protest organizer, said causes like the pro-Palestine movement and the fight for racial literacy are intertwined. 

“An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” Haddad said.

Protesters held a short rally at Abner Clay Park before playing music and holding their own graduation celebration. 

One graduate, Siatta Kaba, said VCU is hypocritical for marketing itself as a diverse school while shooting down things like the racial literacy requirement. 

“I’m graduating from the AFAM department”, Kaba said. “That department came as a result of protests and civil disobedience.”

Kaba criticized VCU for sending in riot police to shut down a pro-Palestine protest and encampment the week before.

“Nobody should ever try to stop the students’ voices or the people’s voices,” Kaba said.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply