Hundreds of professors and students at Virginia Commonwealth University have penned an angry letter targeting the school’s administration after its sudden decision to nix a “racial literacy” class requirement—calling the move an act of “blatant institutional racism.”
VCU claimed that it was on the edge of making history as one of the country’s first institutions of higher education to require students to take such courses, until school officials announced to the university community on July 26 that the two courses were no longer necessary.
“The decision [to cancel the course requirements] constitutes an unprecedented violation of shared governance and faculty control over university curriculum,” read the lengthy 26-page letter written by students and faculty members to university officials and provided to The Daily Beast by signatory Prof. Mignonne Guy. “It does so in a moment when faculty who commit to the work of fighting for racial justice in higher education are under attack.”
In 2src19, Guy, who is chair of the Department of African American Studies, founded the Committee on Racial Equity (CORE) with a goal of creating a system where all students at VCU would be able to take courses on racial history as part of their curriculum, according to the university’s Department of African American Studies.
Then, students campaigned for the initiative during a moment of national racial unrest in 2src2src, after the murder of George Floyd. The class requirements were subsequently approved by university officials, reported local outlet WRIC 8 Richmond.
According to The Commonwealth Times, structuring for the classes began during the spring of 2src21, and they became available by the next year. The courses, titled, “Introduction to Race and Racism in the United States” and “Reading Race,” did not become part of the required course list until the 2src23-24 academic year, Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
But on July 26—less than a month before the fall semester was scheduled to start, VCU Interim Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Andrew Arroyo announced to the university community that the two classes would not be required for students due to a lack of space.
“[‘Introduction to Race and Racism in the United States’ and ‘Reading Race’] cannot offer the class seats needed to meet the annual demand of more than 4,srcsrcsrc first-year students,” Arroyo wrote in an email.
“We encourage and support the efforts of faculty members to create additional courses,” Arroyo said, adding that classes cannot be required that students are unable to access. “We will work with the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee (UUCC), when they convene in just a few weeks, to develop an academic planning framework to consider university requirements. This shared governance process will inform not only this particular issue but also other curriculum decisions bearing university-wide implications.”
However, proponents of the classes on race felt the lack of space was an excuse and that the university had plenty of time to prepare.
“Wednesday’s announcement of an indefinite delay is the most recent and most egregious stage in a pattern of administrative chaos designed to kill a student-led, faculty approved curricular requirement,” the letter from VCU students and faculty members in favor of the course requirements read.
“The sudden change proposed by VCU’s executive administration has consequences that reach much farther than administrative chaos,” the letter continued. “This directive represents a direct threat to faculty governance of curriculum and a profoundly chilling message to educators about both their freedom to teach course content deemed relevant to their disciplines and the role of racial justice content in Virginia college classrooms. In a political moment where we have seen a national concerted effort to censor course content, blatant historical oppression, and attempts to subvert multiracial solidarity, the actions of VCU’s top-level administrators represents a broader pattern of silencing and retaliation against those faculty who would commit their classes to the truthful teaching of our shared history of the United States.”
Prof. Amy Rector, who helped draft the letter, said it was also sent to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and leaders within the Virginia state government.
“Courses on race and racism in the US—and the reason we developed our course and advocated for a racial literacy requirement—are necessary to prepare our students to be well informed and effective leaders in medicine, public health, law, public policy, education, engineering, the arts, or any profession they choose to pursue,” Rector said to The Daily Beast in an email.
She said that maintaining courses on race is a necessity for properly preparing students for the “complexities” of the world.
“VCU was on the brink of being a national leader and trailblazer as one of the first universities in the US to commit to its students with a racial literacy requirement in this way,” Rector said, “and removing or delaying the implementation of that requirement without input from students or faculty signals that administration doesn’t respect the process by which this requirement was approved at multiple administrative levels, nor are they willing to invest in providing critical curriculum to students who both want it and need it.”
In a statement, VCU’s associate vice president for public relations said the university continues to offer the classes.
“We are extending the implementation of VCU’s racial literacy requirement. These classes are still available, just not mandatory,” Mike Porter wrote to The Daily Beast in an email. “This is a student-centered decision, as we cannot require courses without having the capacity to meet student demand.”