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.
“You can go a whole four years talking to white people, being taught by white people and not having anything to do with black people,” sophomore Reyna Smith said.
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.
Staff members allowed the students to peacefully read their letter and demands. Brian Shaw, senior executive director in Rao’s office, then took the list of the demands and offered the students a chance to meet with Rao an hour early.
The students, sitting down and occupying most of the first floor, declined to leave or to reschedule the appointment.
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.
“Students of color can’t take on the burden themselves,” Rao said. He added later, “I very much have the same vision for VCU. I think there’s greater capacity to do what we know we need to do for all fellow human beings, and it needs to be a model for the rest of the nation.”
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.
Shayla Sanders, a senior at VCU who took part Thursday, said the issues the students are confronting aren’t simply about themselves. She said having more black professors would benefit all students because of the points of view those professors will bring.
Sanders, and other students, said the idea is to give everyone an opportunity to learn and experience things outside of their cultural comfort zones.
“You really don’t learn about black people at VCU,” she said. “That’s why I think we should go out of our way … to have a transformational experience and have these conversations.”
Thursday’s takeover of the president’s office is the second time black students have rallied this week. About 200 gathered at the university Wednesday.
The demonstrations at VCU follow student-led protests at the University of Missouri, which led to the abrupt resignation Monday of the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, over his administration’s handling of racial complaints.
“As black students at a (predominantly white university) located in the capital of what was once the Confederacy, what the black students at Mizzou are currently experiencing could someday be VCU if further progressive action is not taken,” Attalah Shabazz said, reading from the letter.
Rao, in an email to students and faculty members following Wednesday’s rally, said the university took the concerns seriously and would hold a forum on diversity and inclusion next week.
On Thursday, he invited the students sitting in his office to play a role in the forum and said his staff would work to get them excused from class.
The two sides also agreed to meet again, including gathering in February to discuss progress on the students’ demands.
“I have very little doubt at all about many of the things that people are talking about because sometimes you feel it,” Rao said. “Sometimes, to be honest, you wonder, ‘Where are the students?’ ”