The Collegian
Monday, October 02, 2023

Jepson faculty host forum to discuss alumni award

Faculty members from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies convened a forum Monday night to discuss the controversy surrounding an award given to alumna Victoria Cobb, president of The Family Foundation of Virginia.

The forum was moderated by Douglas Hicks, professor of leadership and religion, and Gill Hickman, professor of leadership studies. Other faculty in attendance were professors Don Forsyth, Thad Williamson, Joanne Ciulla, Terry Price, Ana Mitric, George Goethals, Karen Zivi and Crystal Hoyt. Sandra Peart, the dean of the Jepson School, offered opening and closing remarks.

About 45 students attended and a variety of opinions were discussed.

At the start, Hicks said he hoped the discussion could model a civil discourse and an "open and frank conversation."

Each faculty member gave an opening statement and then the discussion was opened up to questions and comments from students.

A few professors voiced their displeasure about Jepson's decision to award Cobb.

"I am not in fact happy about the award that Jepson has given to Victoria Cobb," Williamson said. "But this does not mean that I think we have nothing constructive to learn from Victoria Cobb or this incident." He said he understood what had led a number of students to want to protest Cobb, and that he realized that some LGBTQ students "took the news about Jepson honoring Cobb as a kick to the teeth."

Hoyt said: "I do not support that the award was given to this individual. I don't think someone in the Jepson School would give an award to someone in the KKK because we would have drawn the line, but we didn't draw the line here, so to me personally that's very problematic."

Williamson said, "While it pains me to think that this award has led to the impression that the Jepson School is not supportive of gay and lesbian students, I want to reiterate that this is not the case."

Zivi said students' perspective was important for faculty to hear.

"The award has been given, the response has been what it's been," she said. "I think many of us would apologize, but the thing we have to do, whatever side of the issue you're on, is talk about these things."

Mitric said: "Cobb would not describe herself as working to oppress people. ... One of the things we have to keep in mind is what does she think she's doing and why is she doing it? We have to, on some level, respect her own description of her work.

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"We can't actually have genuine dialogue with people with whom we disagree when we say things to them that they consider either name-calling or insulting. Saying to [Cobb], 'You're a homophobe' isn't likely to change anything. ... She wouldn't describe herself that way."

Hickman read a statement from leadership professor Gary McDowell, who was unable to attend the forum. In the statement, McDowell said everyone should reflect on Principle Two of the Richmond Promise: diversity of ideas.

Caleb Routhier, a junior Jepson student, said he thought the situation had been blown out of proportion.

Other students expressed their displeasure and anger.

"I love Jepson," said senior Juliette Jeanfreau, "but I'm not really thrilled that the institution I'm graduating from is going to be associated with [Cobb]."

One student said: "What is the school waiting for? Why can't they back us up? I'm only [at Richmond] because of the financial aid. The fact that we have to go through this is so ridiculous."

Sophomore Jon Henry, president of the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity, said: "I hate it here. I missed the tour, I'll never be a Jepson student and my experience has been horrible here. ... The gays and the queers, we get the bottom rank. Most people know I have more meetings than I go to class, just handling queer shit."

Freshman Emily Blevins said: "We feel like our sense of security from coming to this school is just thrown out the window from people ignoring our views and our feelings. There's a lot of anger in this whole discussion, but really it's just stemming from sadness and a loss of faith."

Several students also questioned how the award recipients had been selected.

Peart thanked everyone for their comments, and talked about the process that went into choosing the award recipients. The process for the award is the same one that has been used during the seven years the award has existed, she said. Each December, a call for nominations is sent to faculty, staff and alumni. Nominations close at the end of January, and then a committee of faculty and staff meet to determine the recipient, she said.

"This year they decided to award it unanimously to Victoria Cobb and the other recipient, Elizabeth Thompson," Peart said. "It's not an award that we typically send out a message to students about; there has never been a message sent out to students about this award."

Peart said the award was for Jepson students who graduated ten years ago, so that had narrowed down the possible eligible recipients to about 40.

"I do think we should, in the future, think more about what it means to give this award in terms of people's perceptions of the leader who is being recognized," Peart said. "It is hard to separate the two, but this was never meant to be an award to the Family Foundation."

It was for two alumnae who have led organizations and whose leadership the committee felt should be recognized, she said.

"We were somewhat surprised that there might be an impression we were endorsing their viewpoints," Peart said.

She told students: "Feel assured you will never be ignored by these faculty. These are the comments we take back to that room when we reassess how these awards are considered."

Contact staff writer Anna Kuta at

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