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VCU provost sends racial literacy syllabi to Youngkin's Cabinet

A portrait of Reed
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Assistant Professor Kristin Reed is photographed on Thursday, March 14, 2024 at her home in Richmond, Virginia.

Faculty, students want clarity about timeline of the delayed course requirement.

Fotis Sotiropoulos, the provost at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently shared draft racial literacy syllabi materials with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration at its request, drawing criticism from students and faculty.

The requirement for students to take a racial literacy course was initially slated to take effect in fall 2023, but the requirement was dropped after students had already registered. At the time, VCU claimed it didn’t have the space or staff to fulfill the requirement. Faculty disputed that response.

Now there’s concern about when the requirement will take effect — if at all — if the Youngkin administration is involved. Sotiropoulos wrote that “a decision on when the requirement can be implemented is pending” in a March 1 letter to Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera.

“The students who demanded this in 2020 are going to be gone from the university before it’s even implemented,” said VCU faculty member Kristin Reed. “And that’s really heartbreaking.”

A coalition of students and faculty formed in 2020 began advocating for the racial literacy course requirement among other things, following the murder of George Floyd.

Since the delayed implementation of the racial literary requirement, faculty members have been evaluating and vetting course alternatives to fulfill the racial literacy requirement. According to the letter from Sotiropoulos, there should soon be 17 vetted courses for students to choose from “with the goal of adding more next year.”

Reed is among the faculty members who have been reviewing course syllabi. She was disappointed that VCU shared their materials with the Youngkin administration in the first place and cited a preexisting culture of fear and uncertainty among faculty that sharing the material has exacerbated.

“[VCU] administration agreed to hand over syllabi to an overtly hostile elected official without any discussion amongst the faculty, or any concern for the well-being of those workers,” Reed said.

While the Youngkin administration requested the syllabi materials, it’s unclear what it intends to do with them. The administration has also requested to review similar syllabi from George Mason University.

Reed sees the Youngkin administration’s syllabi request as a nuanced political attack designed to instill fear and affect behavior through fear. She doesn’t think the governor is going to crack down on specific classroom lessons.

“But I think that what he does know is that if every faculty member is afraid for their jobs,” Reed said. “He knows that he can do a lot to reduce conversations about racial justice on campuses without any formal intervention.”

A portrait of Marie Vergamini
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Marie Vergamini is photographed on Thursday, March 14, 2024 in her classroom on the VCU campus in Richmond, Virginia.

VPM News reached out to the Youngkin administration and the Virginia Department of Education what the intentions are behind the request for syllabi materials.

In a statement that did not answer VPM News’ five submitted questions, Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez wrote, “the Administration has heard concerns from members of the Board of Visitors, parents, and students across the Commonwealth regarding core curriculum mandates that are a thinly veiled attempt to incorporate the progressive left’s groupthink on Virginia’s students. Virginia’s public institutions should be teaching our students how to think, not what to think and not advancing ideological conformity.”

Marie Vergamini, a Ph.D. student at VCU and adjunct professor, said she wants clarity from VCU’s provost and president about whether they still support moving forward with the racial literacy requirement.

“We are tired of the wishy washy–ness,” Vergamini said, pointing out that VCU President Michael Rao signaled his support and approval of the racial literacy requirement back in 2019.

VPM News requested an interview with Sotiropoulos, which was not granted. A spokesperson for VCU did not respond to VPM News’ questions by deadline, but did confirm via email that Guidera’s office requested the materials — and linked back to the racial literacy initiative’s landing page.

Vergamini was in the original group of undergraduate and graduate students who started pushing for the course requirement in 2020. Vergamini has also been reviewing course materials to fulfill the racial literacy requirement like a proposal for a course called representations of race in cinema.

“As a society, it's just that important to be just as racially literate as you are in your understanding of math, or your understanding of a language that the majority of us all speak,” Vergamini said.

“The idea of racial literacy is not only important to students that take the course but also to educators. We have a responsibility to help our students out the best that we can. And understanding racial literacy will help us become better educators.”

VPM News questions for Gov. Glenn Youngkin

1. What led to the Youngkin administration's request for course syllabi at VCU?

2. What will the administration be reviewing the courses for exactly? 

3. Is it the intention of the Governor to attempt to halt or delay the implementation of these courses, or recommend altering them in any way? 

4. What is the status of the administration's review of similar course syllabi at George Mason University? 

5. Are similar courses at any other public Virginia universities coming under review as well, and if so – which ones?

VPM News questions for Virginia Commonwealth University

1. Does VCU plan to move forward with offering the 11 approved courses – regardless of any suggestions or recommendations from the Youngkin administration to alter or cancel them?

2. Why did VCU share the course syllabi with the Youngkin administration?

3. What are the names of the 11 approved courses, and the additional 6 courses that are poised to be approved?

4. At this point, what's the earliest these courses could be offered?

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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