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‘We don’t want words, we want action’: Black student activists call for ‘a comprehensive culture shift’ at the University

Among their demands submitted to Ryan’s racial equity task force are the implementation of comprehensive anti-racist programs and the creation of more opportunities for Black faculty

The students argue that the incorporation of anti-racist teachings into University-wide curriculum requirements is “fundamental to transforming the overall embodiment of the University’s values.”
The students argue that the incorporation of anti-racist teachings into University-wide curriculum requirements is “fundamental to transforming the overall embodiment of the University’s values.”

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series by The Cavalier Daily exploring a list of demands submitted to President Jim Ryan’s racial equity task force by a group of Black student activists and also a separate list of demands published by the Black Student Alliance. The full series of articles is linked below.

After gathering over 1,900 signatures from University community members and 180 signatures from student organizations on an initial draft of a letter and list of demands to be sent to University President Jim Ryan, a group of predominantly Black student activists submitted a revised statement and list of demands June 12 to the new racial equity task force recently formed by Ryan.

The group of students had initially published their statement and list of demands June 1 in response to a statement released May 31 by Ryan addressing nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and police brutality. In their response, the students expressed disappointment towards Ryan’s initial statement and called upon him and the University to not “be complacent when it comes to fighting against systemic racism and inequality, which the University regularly fails to do.”

Ryan’s initial statement released May 31 was met with criticism from community members for what they saw as its failure to sufficiently address the underlying causes of ongoing national protests. Ryan subsequently released a follow-up statement June 3 in which he recognized his previous statement as having been “inadequate” and announced the formation of a new racial equity task force assembled to address “the growing list of recommendations, suggestions and demands regarding the subject of racial equity” at the University. Based upon their findings, the group will present to Ryan in August “a concrete and prioritized set of recommendations about the best steps forward, including actions that can be implemented right away.” 

The students’ list of demands is divided into 13 short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, including the following four mid-term goals and two long-term goals upon which have been elaborated.


Replace the current implicit bias module offered to incoming students with a new module focused on the history of U.Va.:

In fall 2017, the University implemented a requirement for all first-years to take upon arriving on Grounds an implicit bias module, designed to make students aware of their own subconscious biases and prejudices. However, the student authors of the petition argue that the module is insufficient.

“Frankly, from interacting with non-people of color on campus and white folks, I don’t think that the [implicit bias training] is enough,” said Sarandon Elliot, a rising fourth-year College student and one of the letter’s authors. 

In lieu of the implicit bias module, the students call for “complete engaging modules that present a nuanced detailing of the history of racism at U.Va.” and that are “focused on the macro and micro levels of racism as it pertains to systemic racism at the University and beyond.”

In their list of demands, BSA also included the “[expansion of] current curriculum and increase[d] funding of initiatives committed to combating racism.” 

Provide comprehensive anti-racism training for all residential advisors, senior advisors and Housing and Residence Life staff members:

The students call for not only the implementation of reading requirements for Housing and Residence Life staff members but also training for residential advisors to “lead group discussions on cultural competencies and implicit biases.” Furthermore, the students urge the University’s administration and the Housing and Residential Life leadership to work to “increase the amount of [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] residential advisors and senior advisors on Grounds.”

Currently, approximately 43 percent of residential advisors identify as white, 16 percent as Black, 18 percent as Asian American and 9 percent as Latinx. Among senior advisors, 44 percent identify as white, 12 percent as Black, 28 percent as Asian American and 4 percent as Latinx.

Elliot described how the University environment can be “so overwhelming” for Black students in particular.

“The last place you want to feel like you’re being judged or that you can’t talk to anyone is when you go back to your dorm — your home,” she said. “I think it would be really important for Black students to see another Black or Brown face and be like, I feel like I can speak to them about any issues I have.”

Provide required, comprehensive programming at New Student Orientation regarding the University’s history of slavery and racial injustice:

The students call upon the University to provide a “comprehensive program to incoming first-year students known as ‘Unpacking Privilege’” that would act as a “crash course” for students before later completing a more in-depth module on race and the University as highlighted in a previous demand. 

Although the students recognize efforts made to make orientation “the best experience possible,” the students also argue that orientation programming is currently lacking “dialogue of race and racism in order to gain a better understanding of place.” The recommended curriculum for the “crash course” includes three sessions revolving around the history of slavery at the University, systemic racism and privilege.

“I think that one of the biggest things with history is that it can be used as either a teaching tool or propaganda, [such as with] Confederate monuments,” Elliot said. “I think it’s really important to tackle [history] honestly.”

New Student Orientation sessions for incoming first-year and transfer students will be conducted online, and programming will occur throughout July.

Among the Orientation Leaders working this summer, approximately 32 percent identify as Black, 24 percent as Asian American, 22 percent as white, 7 percent as Latinx and 5 percent as multiracial.

According to an email statement to The Cavalier Daily from Sarah Dodge, assistant director for Orientation and New Student Programs, their team “take[s] a critical eye to [their] program” each year and assesses how they have accomplished outcomes aligned with their “three core principles of discovery, development, and diversity.”

“We acknowledge that context matters and that the individual stories of new students and their experiences matter,” Dodge said. “As an office we work to amplify the voices and stories of our new students. We aim to create an environment where new students can engage across differences and share their perspectives with one another.”

Create more professorships, fellowships, and tenure-track opportunities for Black faculty entering the University and endow the Carter G. Woodson Institute, specifically the Fellowship program, and expand the Institute to occupy all of Minor Hall: 

With regards to the number of Black faculty members at the University and resources for classes focused on Black politics and history, the two separate demands call for the University to increase the number of full-time, tenured Black faculty in all schools and for the establishment of an endowment for the Department of African American and African Studies, the Carter G. Woodson Institute. 

As of 2019, there are 108 African American faculty members across all schools at the University, or about 3.7 percent of all faculty members. While the number of African American faculty members has increased in the past decade, their overall representation among all University faculty has only grown from about 3.5 percent in 2009 to 3.7 percent in 2019. While the University does not release specific data regarding the number of African American faculty members with tenure, people of color made up about 26 percent of all tenure and tenure-track faculty in 2019 as compared to 20 percent in 2015. 

Amidst claims of potential racial bias and “inconsistencies” in the process, Assistant Curry School Professor Paul Harris was denied his chance at achieving tenure this past spring by the Curry School Tenure and Promotion Committee — a decision which Harris, who is Black, appealed but was also denied by University Provost Liz Magill. 

The students also ask for additional course opportunities for undergraduate students relating to the history of Black activism and Black politics at the University. During the fall semester, the University currently plans on offering about three dozen courses across several academic departments relating to a variety of historical, social and political topics relevant to African American and African studies. 

For the Woodson Institute specifically, the students call for the establishment of an endowment as means of securing long term and consistent funding for the department and its endeavors, adding that similar endowments have already been created for other departments at the University such as the Department of Politics and the School of Music. 

With regards to the physical space in which the Woodson Institute is housed — currently occupying several office spaces in Minor Hall — the students ask that the department be given the entirety of Minor Hall to better “accommodate more space for additional faculty, fellowships, and professors.” 

“The Institute’s Pre and Post-11 doctoral Fellowship programs have produced over a hundred scholars who have gone on to be employed in many prominent institutions throughout the country,” the demand reads. “Thus, the Woodson Institute is a crucial source for the training and distribution of Africana Studies … The current political climate has exposed the underlying presence of systemic racism and injustice worldwide. Therefore, now, more than ever, there is an increasing need for students to be equipped to facilitate conversations regarding race.” 

Elliot said that symbolic initiatives by the University to recognize its racist history — such as the recently-completed Memorial to Enslaved Laborers — are insufficient in addressing deeper, systemic racial disparities. 

“I think that U.Va. in particular has been trying to deal with their legacy of slavery on campus and the effects of it,” Elliot said. “When you look at higher ed in general, why is it that there are [fewer] Black and Brown professors? It’s because of the legacy of slavery, it’s because of the legacy of Jim Crow — it’s all built up on one another.”

She added that current University leaders must take a meaningful role in addressing the current impacts of this legacy by actively supporting Black students.

“Jim Ryan and the administration can build all the fancy monuments they want, but until they recognize that this is our legacy, and this is how we still continue to play into it today [through] not hiring Black faculty or not giving Black students voices and places to be creative and express themselves, [they’re] not supporting the Black community, and they’re a part of the problem,” Elliot said. 

The BSA statement also reiterates the longstanding demand for increasing funding for the Woodson Institute and African American and Afrian studies and programs at the University more broadly, including dramatic increases in Black, full-time faculty at the University that is at least proportional to the approximately six percent of Black students that currently make up the University population. 

Established in 1981, the Woodson Institute achieved department status in the fall of 2017 after years of advocacy from members of the institute. At the time, Prof. Deborah McDowell, director of the Woodson Institute and Alice Griffin Professor of English, said she hoped that institute’s new status would allow it to receive a greater budget allocation from the University to fund a graduate program and fellowships. By the fall of 2018, the institute had hired two new faculty members and observed substantial increases in enrollment for classes offered in the department. At that time, 56 students had declared a major in the department. 

In 2018, the Woodson Institute had an annual budget of $1,378,442 and by 2020, it has grown to nearly $1.7 million — a roughly 23 percent increase. By comparison, two other academic departments in the College that tend to offer classes relating to historical, social and political topics relevant to race relations and African American and African studies — the Department of Sociology and the Department of History — received $3,126,830 and $4,929,779 in 2018, respectively. In 2020, the History Department budget has grown by roughly seven percent to $5,284,480, while the Sociology Department’s budget has increased by two percent to $3,174,784. For the 2019-2020 academic year, the College had a combined total of $381,435,265 at its disposal for covering its expenses. 

Across the three departments, there were 66 tenure-track and general faculty members in August of 2017, increasing to 82 positions by August of 2019. In 2017, 11 of these individuals identified as Black of African American, increasing to 14 in 2020. It is unclear how many of these individuals have full-time tenured positions. 

Prof. McDowell did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 


Require all students to take a course on race and ethnic relations in America as a requirement to graduate throughout the University

The students argue that the incorporation of anti-racist teachings into University-wide curriculum requirements is “fundamental to transforming the overall embodiment of the University’s values” because of the University’s history and relationships with enslavement and Confederate values. 

The students recommend the courses “should be modeled after existing race and ethnic relations courses to avoid politicizing the content.” 

“A lot of people at this school...don’t know how race functions, and they don’t know how to get uncomfortable about talking about race,” said Lauren Cochran, a rising third-year Batten and College student and one of the demand authors. “You really have to make sure that these people are educated before they graduate on race and ethnic relations.”

With the University’s transition to the New College Curriculum, most incoming first-year College students in the fall of 2020 will be required to take one two-credit course in each of the four Engagements, one of which is entitled “Engaging Differences.” According to information provided on the College’s website, through the “Engaging Differences” courses, students can expect to “consider how we encounter one another across social boundaries, perform and express our differences, clash, develop prejudices and construct forms of discrimination.” 

The other schools of the University do not have similar requirements for a course with an explicit focus on addressing prejudice and discrimination. 

Cochran highlighted how students in all professions will encounter people of different races and therefore everyone should know what a microaggression or other acts of prejudice and discrimination might look like. 

Scholarship programs specifically for students who are descendants of enslaved laborers who built the University and surrounding Charlottesville community:

Among the recommendations included in the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University’s 2018 report presented to then-President Teresa Sullivan was the creation of African American scholarship programs. The Commission asserted that, despite being barred by a 4th Circuit Court decision from using race as a factor in admissions, the University “should still make a visible commitment to increasing the number of African American students who enroll.” 

In their statement, the students stressed that the University should not only contact already known descendants of enslaved laborers at the University to inform them of scholarship opportunities but also continue to seek out records of unknown descendants in order to inform them of the scholarship opportunities as well.

According to Elliot, this particular demand is significant because of the historical obstacles to education that Black people have faced in the wake of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1950 that the first Black student matriculated at the University. Gregory Swanson, a graduate of Howard Law School, applied to take graduate school law courses at the University but was denied. Swanson sued the University, and his case was successfully appealed in the US Circuit Court of Appeals thanks to the help of NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston. 

Swanson dropped out in 1951, but in June 1953, Walter Ridley received a doctorate degree from the University’s school of education, and one month later, E. Louise Stokes-Hunter became the second Black person and first Black woman to earn a degree at the University, also receiving a doctorate in education. In 1959, Engineering student Robert Bland became the first Black undergraduate student to earn a degree at the University. 

To Elliot, creating scholarship programs for the descendants of enslaved laborers who built the University and were not paid for their labor is “the least we can do for folks.”

“They never got those reparations,” Elliot said. “Their ancestors never got a paycheck. They couldn’t send their kids to school.”

With regards to shifting the broader culture at the University, Elliot emphasized that the students’ work on their statement and list of demands is a continuation of work done by previous students at the University. 

“People have been fighting this fight long before us, like BSA and Living Wage [Campaign], and I think there is still so much work to be done,” Elliot said. “Sometimes I feel like progress at U.Va. is almost like a facade, like we’re not really getting to the root issues of things….We don’t want words. We want action.”

The full series: 


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