Black Students Take Over VCU’s President’s Office to Demand Changes

Louis Llovio, Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 12, 2015

A group of black Virginia Commonwealth University student activists marched into the school president’s office Thursday morning to demand the university increase the number of black professors and offer more cultural training on campus.

The students, about 30 in all, took over the first floor of the office on Franklin Street about 10 a.m., blocking the entrance and offices on the first floor as well as disrupting daily work.

What followed was not a protest rife with tension or safety concerns but an open and frank conversation with VCU President Michael Rao about the problems the black students say they confront at VCU.

“I’m really glad you’re here. I think it’s important for there to be some sense that our students see a lot of what’s going on, that our students acknowledge it and are willing to talk about it,” Rao said.

The students’ main concern is a lack of black professors at VCU. They say they deal with educators who don’t understand their cultural concerns or the experiences driving their thoughts and world views.

VCU says 5 percent of its professors are black. That’s equal to the national average, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

In addition to concerns about what’s happening inside classrooms, the students said they feel like outsiders on campus. VCU’s student body is 15 percent black.

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The students, several of whom were scheduled to meet with Rao at 11 a.m., entered the building Thursday morning after marching across campus and up Franklin Street chanting “No justice, no peace.”

Once inside the office, they read from a prepared letter expressing their solidarity with student protesters at the main campus of the University of Missouri and from a list of changes they are demanding from VCU officials.

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Rao came downstairs a few minutes later and talked with the students for more than two hours.

The efforts of Rao, his staff and the students themselves defused what easily could have become a nasty standoff.

The students told Rao about feeling alienated at a place where they turned to improve their futures. Several said they were angry, hurt and feel abandoned by the university.

Rao sympathized and encouraged them to talk about their concerns.

He told them that their issues are not a complete surprise and that VCU is taking steps to bring more black professors into the university. The university hired eight black professors between last school year and this school year.

Still, he said, it must be acknowledged that black students have a unique perspective and that the university needs to work to bring about fundamental change.

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Among the students’ demands are for VCU to double the number of black faculty members to 10 percent of the total number of professors by 2017, to have at least one of every three candidates interviewing for a faculty position be black, and to create a position to make sure the policies are being implemented.

The students also demand the creation of a cultural competency course for all students and the hiring of an ombudsman so students have someone who will relate to their experiences and concerns.

The students also want to see an increase in funding for cultural organizations and events on campus.

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