About 70 students converged Friday at Jepson Hall wielding signs in protest of alumna Victoria Cobb, president of The Family Foundation of Virginia, who is one of two graduates this year to receive an award presented annually by the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.
Some student protestors voiced concerns over Cobb's leadership of the Family Foundation — an advocacy group whose stated mission is to strengthen the family — because it had previously lobbied for legislation banning same-sex marriage, same-sex partnerships, anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Virginia workplaces, and gay-straight alliance groups in Virginia public schools, said sophomores Jeff Hunt and Johanna Gehlbach, who helped organize the protest.
Freshman Jennifer Johnson, president of UR Body, UR Choice, a pro-choice advocacy group, said that ten people from the organization had also attended the protest.
"I expect us to send a strong message to the Jepson School of Leadership Studies that the University of Richmond does not stand for intolerance and that we support the LGBTQ community at the University of Richmond," Hunt said of the protest.
Gehlbach said that she had felt that the Jepson School was promoting Cobb's views based on its decision to honor her accomplishments.
"Honoring her work in hindering her fellow man and in serving to oppress and discriminate and marginalize her fellow man," Gehlbach said. "That is not something that deserves an award."
Leading up to the protest, Jepson School Dean Sandra Peart met with students who had a variety of perspectives about the award.
"The Jepson School welcomes and nurtures all students," Peart said in a statement. "This year, Jepson is recognizing two alums who have taken their Jepson education to lead organizations in their communities. We want to be clear that this recognition is meant for each individual alumna, not the organizations they lead.
"It is important to note that many of our faculty teach and write about inclusivity in many of our elective courses as well as our required courses, 'Justice and Civil Society' and 'Leadership Ethics.' And Dr. [Terry] Price and I recently published an article in the 'Virginian-Pilot' arguing for legislative change to end discrimination against homosexuals."
Protesters amassed in a foyer outside of a room in which Cobb was part of a panel of Jepson alumni invited to campus by Gill Hickman, professor of leadership studies, to speak to students in her Theories and Models of Leadership course. Hickman invites Jepson alumni back to the university each year to share how they have applied what they learned in the Jepson School to their lives after graduation, she said.
Cobb said in an e-mail that she had successfully put to work the principles and theories taught to her during her undergraduate education, and that she had been humbled to receive the award. Cobb became president of The Family Foundation in 2004, four years after interning with the organization during her senior year at Richmond.
She said her greatest leadership achievements had included giving a vision and a five-year plan to an organization that had a poorly-defined mission and only short-term goals, building a team that was able to successfully execute the tenets of the plan and watching the plan be used as a model for other similar organizations around the country.
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Although Cobb did not attend the reception located near the protesters, students brought signs, chanted, sang and expressed their discontent with the decision to honor Cobb.
"This decision makes me ashamed to be a member of the Jepson community," said junior Molly Schaefer.
Thad Williamson, assistant professor of leadership studies, delivered a statement to protesters on behalf of a number of Jepson School faculty members, stating that a public forum would be held at 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday between Jepson faculty, Jepson students and the larger university community to discuss issues of leadership, civil discourse and inclusivity that were raised by the award controversy.
Ana Mitric, assistant professor of leadership studies, said that the controversy surrounding the award had presented her and other Jepson faculty with an opportunity to bring theory and practice together.
Mitric brought up the award controversy in her Leadership and the Humanities course as an example of leadership worth analyzing, along with Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell's decision to name April as "Confederate History Month." Mitric said that both decisions involved organizations making recognition of things that some constituents didn't agree with or found problematic.
"With the governor, we didn't have the opportunity to participate," she said, "but with our local issue, we can participate in the debate about the meaning of this action and the response. So for me and a lot of other Jepson faculty, Victoria Cobb is not the central issue.
"It's how can we turn this controversy into an intellectually rewarding conversation for our students in Jepson and the broader UR community. How can this controversy be a source of strength and not a cause for division?"
Junior leadership studies student Caleb Routhier said he thought that Cobb deserved commendation because of her work in expanding the influence of the Family Foundation and because most of the organization's lobbying did not address LGBTQ-related legislation.
"I think the issue is that people want to deny her the award just because they disagree with her political beliefs," Routhier said. "And while I can sympathize with, 'Okay, she shouldn't get the award if her leadership is doing something evil,' I see nothing wrong with what she's doing at all."
The Family Foundation's stated legislative victories include requiring the installation of Internet-filtering technology in public schools and publicly-funded libraries, increasing criminal penalties for those who possess child pornography and for those who injure or kill an unborn child during an attack on the mother, protecting the right of public school students to express their faith, and requiring the posting of the national motto, "In God We Trust," in all public buildings and schools, according to its Web site.
But protesters felt as though some of her stances could not be overlooked.
"She is allowed to voice her opinion and to speak her own opinion," Gehlbach said. "My objection comes on the grounds that the Jepson School and the university, as an inclusive organization, which is furthered by the Richmond Promise, should not be honoring a woman and her organization that actively works to discriminate against a group of people."
Also receiving the Tenth Year Reunion Recognition Award was Elizabeth Hopfinger Thompson, co-founder of Reality Ministries, a Durham, N.C., nonprofit organization that operates a community center for youth. Thompson and Cobb joined ten other Jepson alumni who have been honored by the leadership school since 2004. Previous honorees have been leaders in the nonprofit sector, higher education, business and politics.
The award is presented each year to one or more Jepson School graduates who earned a major or minor in leadership studies and who have "exhibited exemplary qualities of professional and/or scholarly achievement or community/public service," during the previous decade, according the Jepson School's Web site.
Jepson graduates are nominated by alumni, faculty and staff during December and January, and then a committee of some faculty and staff meet to discuss the nominations. Peart said that the committee's decision to award Cobb and Thompson this year was unanimous and had no abstentions. The full Jepson faculty was informed of the decision in February, she said.
Protesters also questioned whether honoring Cobb contradicted the University's Richmond Promise, which states in section two that the university will "ensure an open and inclusive campus environment."
President Edward Ayers, who spearheaded the five-year Strategic Plan, said in a statement: "The Jepson School's 10th Reunion Recognition this year has led to some discussions about inclusivity on campus. The Dean of the Jepson School has been meeting with concerned parties individually.
"The University has affirmed its commitment to inclusivity by making it one of our highest priorities in our strategic plan, The Richmond Promise. The University's stance is also clear in its non-discrimination policy and its recognition of the status of same-sex domestic partners.
"I am proud of Richmond's commitment to inclusivity, and we are working every day to make the University a welcoming community for all."
Cobb said that the Richmond Promise's guarantee of inclusivity also seeks diversity of experience, belief and thought.
"I represent an organization that holds principles that are not held by some on campus," Cobb said, "but are in fact held by 57 percent of Virginians who agreed with our principle regarding marriage when they voted for an amendment to our state Constitution."
Moving forward, Gehlbach said she hoped that mutual understanding could result.
"For people who agree with Cobb in terms of her LGBTQ positions, just remember that we're humans too," Gehlbach said. "We still cry, we still bleed at the end of the day and that we're basically no different than you. ... We still love people, but who we love doesn't necessarily affect our humanity."
Mitric said that the discussion that would follow regarding the award could lead to additional insight.
"When my students in Core are reading DuBois or my students in Leadership and the Humanities are reading about the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, it's easy for us to pass judgment on who was right and who was wrong," she said. "That is the benefit of hindsight.
"When you're living the present, there may not be that clarity, and that is where you need dialogue."
This version ADDS quotes and information from Cobb and CORRECTS that The Family Foundation has lobbied against "anti"-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Virginia workplaces.
Staff writer Tanveer Ahmed contributed reporting to this story.
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