Virginia Commonwealth University
In 2019, the chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of African American Studies asked a panel of four Virginia college and university presidents whether their institutions required a course on race and racism.
None said yes. And the chair, Mignonne C. Guy, received a public request from her own president.
“You could help me as a faculty member use your articulate voice,” said Michael Rao, VCU’s president, in a recording of the event. “How many times have I said we’ve got to make certain that we do something at this institution that will touch every single student’s life? Because you have so many who bring wisdom to that whole question. They don’t get a chance to get together with other students and talk about this.”
The next year, when the Richmond campus shifted classes online in response to the pandemic, Guy said she provided students Friday Zoom sessions where they could process not just COVID-19 but the murders of George Floyd and other African Americans. Sometimes the sessions would last from 7 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m., she said.
These sessions, combined with previous work, grew into a student and faculty push for a racial literacy course requirement for all VCU undergraduates. The students went from being disempowered to taking the issue before faculty, deans and the provost, Guy said.
“I just watched them morph into these beautiful leaders right before my eyes,” Guy said. She said the general education curriculum committee, the university undergraduate curriculum committee and the governor-appointed, Legislature-confirmed Board of Visitors all approved the requirement.
Guy and Amy Rector, an associate professor of anthropology, co-chaired the Committee on Racial Equity, which pushed to create the requirement, alongside that committee’s Student Advisory Group.
The African American Studies Department’s website says they and another professor received $130,000 worth of grants to interview scholars on race and racism, develop teaching materials other institutions could also use, and examine changes in students’ knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about, among other things: U.S. racism, whiteness and other racialized identities, and willingness to engage in antiracist activism.
The syllabus, provided by Rector, for one of the two courses approved to meet the racial literacy requirement said the class would interrogate “four key areas of inquiry: origins, ideology, maintenance and resistance to race and racism in the U.S.” and apply “an intersectional lens to examine how race interlocks with other systems of power.”
“For your final project you have the opportunity to share how you personally plan to practice anti-racism in your life,” the syllabus said, including through an essay, artwork or other means. The class would be for credit, pass-fail.
The universitywide requirement was set to take effect this fall. But, on July 26, less than a month before the start of classes, the university announced a postponement.
Guy, however, contends it’s a cancellation.
“I have navigated these barriers for five years; we have matched every request, every demand—everything they’ve asked us to do, we’ve done it,” she said. “The goalposts keep changing.”
“I have no faith in this institution instituting this requirement anytime in the future,” she said.
Guy and other faculty members, including the presidents of the Virginia Conference of the American Association of University Professors and the United Campus Workers of Virginia union, have signed a letter that says, “In brief, the actions on the part of the administration are emblematic of blatant institutional racism.”
The postponement comes amid backlash in other states to diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Republican lawmakers in Texas passed a ban on those efforts that takes effect in 2024, while Florida Republicans have prohibited public institutions from spending state or federal money on DEI.
A VCU spokesman wrote in an email that the classes that would’ve satisfied the racial literacy requirement “are still available, just not mandatory.” As of early August, he said about 700 students were enrolled.
“There was no political pressure from anyone to delay the requirement,” he wrote.
VCU didn’t provide interviews, referring instead to statements from administrators.
Andrew T. Arroyo, VCU’s interim senior vice provost for academic affairs and associate vice provost for academic programs, wrote in a July 26 email, shared by opponents of the delay, that “VCU currently offers two courses that meet the criteria of the new requirement. Those courses alone cannot offer the class seats needed to meet the annual demand of more than 4,000 first-year students.”
In July 31 blog post, Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos provided his own message to faculty and staff members.
Sotiropoulos wrote that the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee adopted the requirement two years ago “with an intention to develop and approve courses across the university’s academic units [that] students could take to meet the requirement.” But, he wrote, only two have been created.
“The university needs more courses, and more course sections, to offer before this requirement can be fully implemented,” Sotiropoulos wrote. “When you consider the typical number of entering, first-time students and transfer students, VCU has an annual need of approximately 5,000 student seats. We cannot, in good faith, require of students something they have no opportunity to meet.”
“By extending the implementation of this requirement, we forge an opportunity for VCU’s academic community to work together to create the necessary course capacity our students need to meet this requirement,” Sotiropoulos said.
Guy and Rector said the 4,000 or 5,000 required student seat numbers don’t make sense as an excuse for delay because the requirement wasn’t planned to start as a mandate for all freshmen. Students would have their whole undergraduate years to take and pass a course fulfilling the requirement.
“All the committees involved in curriculum agreed and approved this,” Rector said. “We’ve had two years to think about what this implementation would look like.”
“We would love to take on sections of this class,” said Kristin Reed, an associate professor in that department and VCU’s United Campus Workers chapter chair. “But, instead, we’re facing the whole-cloth gutting of our department.”
But, in an email, Marie Vergamini, a graduate student representative of the Committee on Racial Equity’s Student Advisory Group, said VCU’s excuse that it “does not have the bodies or space to cater to our incoming freshman is absolute nonsense.”
“What I think of the delay is a guise to kill the requirement and the courses approved within that requirement,” Vergamini said. “I don’t think this has anything to do with [Republican] Governor [Glenn] Youngkin or fear of lower state budgets or anything like that. I think VCU gave us the run around knowing they were going to pull the course right before that start of the first semester the requirement would go into effect.”
“The faculty and the student body came together to put the requirement and the course together,” she wrote. “We joined forces with many other students organizations across campus. And all this progress has been ripped from us under false pretenses.”