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VCU Student, Faculty Diversity Demands Continue Following Alleged Racial Profiling Incident

VCU Arts Building
Brianna Scott for WCVE


Pauly: From the WCVE News room, I’m Megan Pauly with today’s Learning Curve. Today, we have a special guest, news intern Brianna Scott. Thanks for being here, Brianna! 

Scott: Thanks, Megan! 

Pauly: Brianna is also a student at VCU. And she’s been following the aftermath of an instance many have called racial profiling on campus last fall. She’s here to tell us about what’s transpired since then. But first, can you refresh our memories about the incident last fall. What happened?  

Scott: In October, tenured VCU arts professor Javier Tapia asked a security officer to check on an African-American woman. That was visiting arts professor, now VCU employee, Caitlin Cherry. She was sitting in a room reserved for faculty and graduate students, eating breakfast and checking emails. The reason this was has been so controversial is because Cherry felt that she had been racially targeted by Tapia. 

Pauly: I understand Caitlin Cherry isn’t speaking to the media now, but you did speak to her initially. Can you tell us about what she had to say?

Scott: When I first spoke to her she was very adamant about sharing her side of the story. There is this bigger issue of black bodies being policed for doing everyday things. And this incident has really sparked a dialogue about how the school can ensure incidents like this don’t happen in the future. I spoke with students like Aaron Holmes. He’s a painting and printmaking major. He says this isn’t about just one incident.

Holmes: It just brings up other instances and situations for students that could have been another headline for the department but students didn’t come forth and say anything.

Scott: A group of students issued a list of demands in the fall. They want mandatory diversity training, and more full-time faculty of color. They also want to make it easier to report discrimination.

Pauly: So what’s been the university’s response to these student demands?

Scott: They’ve convened a task force. It’s made up of four work groups. They’re working on recommendations they hope to finalize in October. Holly Alford is Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the school of the arts. She’s leading one of the work groups.

Alford:  We're really looking into, what are some of the things with, or what are some of the trainings and, and what are some of the workshops that can be offered?

Scott: She held a voluntary training for faculty on bias last week. She says about 16 faculty members attended. And says she’s looking into holding more trainings for both faculty and students this summer.

Pauly: You also spoke with a VCU Arts faculty member, Cara Benedetto. She wants the trainings to be mandatory, right? 

Scott: Yes. She feels like those who need to go, don’t go. And she thinks there’s a larger issue the university needs to address: how to recruit and retain more faculty of color. 

Benedetto: I think we would all agree that there’s enough white women that are working here. 

Pauly: There was also an investigation into the incident, launched a few days after Caitlin Cherry’s discrimination complaint. What happened there, Brianna?

Scott: The investigation concluded in November that Tapia did not initiate the security check on Cherry based on race -- in other words, there were no findings of racial discrimination. There were also no past reports or complaints on file to indicate Tapia had discriminated against other students or faculty. 

Pauly: Tapia also filed a lawsuit against VCU in December. He alleges the university violated his freedom of speech and questions why he’s still out on paid leave. Brianna, can you tell us more about the lawsuit?

Scott: VCU has told him he can’t step foot on the campus, or contact anyone affiliated with the university. So all communication -- in person, via phone, e-mail or social media -- is prohibited. Based on the findings of the investigation, Tapia feels like this is a violation of his first amendment rights. The lawsuit also states that he feels like he’s been subject to quote “academic death penalty.” In other words, he feels like no other university in America will hire him again.

Pauly: So what’s next? Do we know whether or not Tapia will be allowed back on campus anytime soon?

Scott: Tapia is currently listed as teaching two classes for the Fall 2019 semester. But whether or not he will actually return to teach those classes is unknown at this time. 

Pauly: Thanks, Brianna. 

Scott: Thanks, Megan. 

Pauly: Brianna Scott  is WCVE’s news intern. I’m Megan Pauly, education reporter. You’re listening to WCVE News. 

Megan Pauly covers education and healthcare issues in the greater Richmond region. She was a 2020-21 reporting fellow with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network and a 2019-20 reporting fellow with the Education Writers Association.