The University’s Board of Visitors met virtually over Zoom Thursday to discuss and propose University action due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
Action against racism, police brutality
In response to protests, and part of fulfilling the University’s 10-year strategic plan, University President Jim Ryan mentioned that he launched a racial equity task force committee Wednesday which includes Ian Solomon, the dean of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Kevin McDonald, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion; and Barbara Brown Wilson, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture and the faculty director of The Equity Center.
Ryan stated that he is committed to further action by the University, which is part of the committee’s objective — to create a list of concrete actions for the University to take in response to recent pressures for change at the University.
“[The University community] wants to not just hear us say, but show that Black lives matter,” Ryan said. “Not just hear us say, but show that we’re anti-racist. Not just hear us say, but show that we recognize that the decision not to do something is a decision to support the status quo … This is not about politics or ideology, but it’s about doing the right thing, which is going to take some focus and courage on all of our parts.”
Board member Barbara Fried suggested that an action the University could implement immediately would be the creation of a course required for all students to learn about racial equality. The idea was first proposed by the Black Student Alliance after white supremacists rallied on Grounds and in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 and has been repeatedly demanded since.
“I think there is a hunger on the part of the students, not just for a thoughtful analysis — which we will have to have — but something immediate that says ‘we get it,’” Fried said. “I can’t think of anything else that we could put into operation so quickly.”
Mazzen Shalaby, the student representative on the BOV and a rising fourth-year Batten student, stated that he supports Fried’s idea, calling it a “great first step.” He noted that a required class which Fried imagined has been advocated for by students and faculty alike.
Board member Tom DePasquale offered criticism after Ryan stated that a required course was one option his task force was considering. DePasquale wanted to emphasize that the material presented in the course would require careful selection in order to not send a political statement.
“I would be careful that we do not set a political statement by the content of the course to take a position we are not prepared to take,” DePasquale said. “Not that we’re looking for a delay, but I’m concerned that the execution of that one could have a whole lot of downside potential if not executed correctly.”
In an interview with The Cavalier Daily following the meeting, Shalaby elaborated on this goal of implementing a required course. He stated that its development is in the early stages and requires more work and research concerning the design. Despite the work that still needs to be done, Shalaby remains determined to have this offered in the fall semester.
“I definitely think the goal is to have something that will be good but maybe not perfect in place for the next year, and then work on refining that and continuing to improve it for years to come,” Shalaby said. “I don't think you should be doing this as a one off.”
The development of a course is just one call to action that organizations and activists at the University have been calling for since the protests began. Some students and organizations, such as the Black Student Alliance in its reiteration of unmet demands, have even called for a re-evaluation of the University’s partnership with the Charlottesville Police Department.
In response to this, Shalaby stated that University Police Chief Tim Longo is willing to engage in discussions about how to improve relationships between the police and the University community.
Another action which Shalaby believes the University could take in response to growing pressure is contextualizing memorials and spaces around Grounds. Shalaby called this a “no-brainer” and hopes that the information he presents to the BOV and administration will be the beginning of action that continues past the end of his term. Later the BOV unanimously approved to change the name of Ruffner Hall to honor Dr. Walter Ridley after a Curry School special subcommittee recommended the change.
Additionally, Shalaby noted that the University should make a concerted effort to hire more Black and people of color for faculty and administrative positions in order to attract more Black students to the University. Currently, 6.61 percent of University students and about four percent of University faculty are Black.
“We are already trying for sure,” Shalaby said. “It's a piece of a much bigger puzzle. I don't think this is going to be the answer to all of our problems by any stretch.”
Accommodating for coronavirus concern
After discussing how the University could react to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Board tackled problems posed by the pandemic. After receiving $5.85 million from the CARES Act last month to meet students’ monetary needs, Ryan emphasized the need for taking care of all students’ financial aid.
“The economic downturn is going to make this even more important,” Ryan said. “So continuing to look for ways to raise funds for financial aid to meet a hundred percent of the financial need of our students is going to be even more important.”
Ryan announced last week that the University is planning to allow students to return to Grounds starting Aug. 25 and that in-person classes would be completed by Thanksgiving. Ryan noted that if the University pursues this option of in-person instruction, they will have to meet state and federal guidelines about modifying daily behaviors due to the coronavirus — such as social distancing and testing — while the hospital must have significant control of the coronavirus.
But given that Virginia just entered Phase Two of coronavirus reopening and the recommendation that people remain six feet apart, Ryan stated that in-person classes make it difficult to abide by these rules because of the small size of the classrooms.
“One of the things that we’re focused on is thinking about whether there are alternative spaces like the Newcomb Ballroom that we might be able to convert into classrooms,” Ryan said. “We are planning for courses that are in person also to be available remotely to students who do not want to attend in the fall or who can’t attend in person in the fall.”
Ryan talked about a pledge students returning to Grounds must sign, since some in the University community are concerned about what guidelines are being proposed for ensuring social distancing and whether students will abide by them.
“We are creating social distancing guidelines and rules that will apply to workplaces, classes, labs, dining halls, libraries and recreational facilities,” Ryan said. “We are drafting a pledge, a social contract of sorts, that we will expect students to sign that will let them know what we expect of them, specifically with regard to social distancing, wearing masks and the like.”
In addition to offering up plans for returning students’ transitions to Grounds, the BOV also presented changes for incoming students regarding admissions and standardized testing because of the virus.
Provost Liz Magill reasoned that, with respect to admissions, the Common Application requirements in the fall of 2021 would change, as would the use of standardized testing, announcing that the University would switch to a test-optional policy.
While the College Board has asked colleges to be more flexible in requiring the use of standardized testing in their application requirements, Magill shared that there are additional reasons why a test optional system could be better.
“The test optional system would expand the pool of candidates in particular among first generation and underrepresented minority populations, given the unevenness of test prep and college advising around test scores,” Magill said. “We are going to use the year ahead as a learning opportunity to determine the utility of this approach and announce next spring if we intend to extend the pilot.”
Additionally, Magill shared that the University will continue using the University Financial Model — which is decentralized and allows individual schools to create personalized budgets — which Magill sees as being more successful rather than an older model called the Centralized Budget System which centralizes revenue and then disperses funds.
With the ongoing protests surrounding racial justice and police brutality, and the unprecedented situation presented by coronavirus, Shalaby is open to continuing discussions with the University community as the student representative on the BOV. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.