This Collegian UR podcast explores racism at The Collegian during the 1980s in its newsroom, in its news coverage and through the ideas it published in its editorial section.
Hosted, edited and produced by Jackie Llanos. Nina Joss and Conner Evans assisted in editing. Music created by Nathan Burns. Podcast art created by Nolan Sykes and The Collegian.
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JACKIE LLANOS: Standards for op-eds have changed over time, including the standards held by The Collegian. During the summer of 2020, I analyzed all articles published by The Collegian that contained the word “racist” as part of my fellowship with the Race and Racism Project. I chose this research topic because I wanted to see in what instances The Collegian had referred to something as “racist.” I also wanted to see what kinds of op-eds included the word and who was writing it.
From its founding in 1914 until 2013, The Collegian published 133 articles that included the word “racist.” 84 of those were op-eds. The articles I found to be the most shocking were a series of op-eds, many of them racist, sexist and homophobic, written from 1988 to 1991 by Rick Mayes, then an undergraduate student and now a professor of political science and co-coordinator of the healthcare studies program at UR.
When I first encountered Mayes’s articles, I could not understand how a professor who won Faculty Member of the Year in 2000, 2003 and 2007 could have written such things. Yet, The Collegian also gave him a platform to promote racist views on a campus that has struggled with instances of racism and lack of inclusion for centuries.
UR did not accept a Black student until 1968, according to the Race and Racism Project website. Even after its integration, UR invested in companies that contributed to apartheid in South Africa, according to a Collegian article published on October 24, 1985. While Mayes was attending UR, a law professor was removed from his teaching position for making racist and sexist comments in his lectures, according to a Collegian article published on January 19, 1989. And in the spring of 2020, racist graffiti was left on the doors of several students, inciting protests from members of the student body.
As I reflected on these events and The Collegian’s role in promoting racist views, I decided to reach out to Mayes to talk about his decision to write his opinion articles and to see if his beliefs had changed over time.
In this episode, we will be discussing The Collegian's role in campus culture by examining the history of The Collegian's editorial process. We will also be exploring how people can become more open-minded by challenging their worldviews.
I'm Jackie Llanos, news editor for The Collegian, and you're listening to Beneath the Surface.
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LLANOS: During his time as a UR student, Mayes wrote over 50 op-eds for The Collegian, with topics including Greek life, politics, race, gender and UR’s campus culture. Although not all of his op-eds garnered attention, some were critiqued in following issues of The Collegian by other students and faculty on campus who found them offensive.
Before we dive into Mayes's perspective, we want to acknowledge that this podcast is not able to cover all the content of his many op-eds. His pieces covered a variety of topics and perspectives, far too many to include in this episode or to be able to summarize accurately. For further details on what Mayes wrote during his time as a student at UR, his op-eds are available in The Collegian archives at www.collegian.richmond.edu.
To better understand Mayes’s mindset when he was a student at UR, I asked him to tell me about his childhood and hometown.
RICK MAYES: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which is in the Midwest.
I attended Westminster Christian Academy. And that's a private, religious, evangelical school.
The people that go there pretty much all have the same religion, or their parents have that religion, and a lot of the classes are about religion. Um, and mine was evangelical Christian. So a lot of courses on the Bible, a lot of courses on, sort of, a biblical outlook on life, and it's -- just, the whole school is sort of permeated with religion.
I didn't really know what else was out there. It was a small school, um....
The teachers cared about us and tried to help us and, and they were really good examples of trying to educate us. But when you're 13, 14, 15, 16, you just kind of go where your parents take you or wherever you get in, and you just think that's normal.
I can tell you this now, even before we've even gotten to the University of Richmond in this interview. Even though Richmond, U of R, was not a diverse school when I got here in 1987, it was still way more diverse than my high school and my neighborhood. So, um, you look back at pictures of U of R in yearbooks, and you think, “That was not a very diverse school in the 1980s.” But it was the most diverse thing I had ever been to.
LLANOS: Mayes went on to join Sigma Phi Epsilon in 1987. Although he wasn’t originally planning on rushing, comments from his peers made it seem important to do so, he said. He decided to participate in recruitment, which happened during the first two weeks of the fall semester.
MAYES: I thought, “I have to go join a fraternity because I will have absolutely nothing to do.” And so at a moment in which -- if I had been in a school where there was, like, a Living Learning program -- like Endeavor, SSIRs, SMART or URISE -- if I could have joined one of those and been around a group of people who are going to, you know, help become developed personally and intellectually, I would have gotten off to a better start.
Instead, I joined a fraternity, which for me, me personally, was the absolute last thing I should have done and the worst decision, one of the worst. I mean, I made many bad decisions in college, but I put it up there in the top three bad decisions because it played out over the next three years.
LLANOS: Being in a fraternity didn't help Mayes expand his worldview, he said.
MAYES: I just wasn’t prepared. Socially, I didn’t have the background of social interactions of people who were different than -- who didn’t share my religion and politics. I didn’t, um -- my high school was wonderful in many ways, and they cared, but it was definitely not a college preparatory high school.
I had never thought critically in my life. I always thought what they told me to think and why. And I might push back a little bit because I was just a teenager, but -- I had never been in an environment where the whole thing was to think critically and to test hypotheses and to challenge, you know, accepted fact, accepted norms and stuff.
LLANOS: Mayes started writing weekly op-eds for The Collegian in 1988, as a sophomore.
MAYES: Number one, I think, literally, after a year of being exposed to a very different school from where I’d grown up, and very diverse compared to where I came -- and critical thinking, I’d had a year of it. I think by my sophomore year, I was trying to figure things out. I was literally trying to see if I could reconcile this new model of thinking and these new values and principles of a liberal arts college, liberal arts education, with, sort of, my religious education and very, very, very conservative political upbringing from my high school.
I was trying to see: Could I reconcile those two things? And so I think I started writing op-eds to see if I could figure it out in my own head. And that’s, you know, and then I thought, “Well, you know, why don’t I just put them in The Collegian and get feedback from people to see if they agree with me more or they disagree with me more?”
LLANOS: Mayes’s more controversial op-eds often got one or more responses in the following week’s issue. On February 2, 1989, his op-ed titled “Blacks first need to economically succeed” talked about poverty rates in the Black community. He wrote, quote, “That is one out of every three blacks as opposed to one out of every 10 whites! Blame it on what you will (innate laziness to overt racism), the black population is not succeeding as a whole and shows no signs of succeeding any time soon," end quote. Mayes’s article garnered three student responses pointing out Mayes’s factual mistakes and racist views. I asked Mayes to recount if he read the responses students, and sometimes professors, wrote to his articles.
MAYES: Yeah, I definitely read them. And...yeah, I mean, most of them were negative. And you know, now when I look back and I read them with my 51-year-old eyes, of course I agree with the people that wrote back criticism, criticizing my op-eds. They were more thoughtful. And the points they made are the ones that I agree with now.
But -- so at the time, my reaction when I got those criticism -- critical letters to the editor about my op-eds -- my response and my reaction was, “Well, okay, so I didn’t write -- I just didn’t write a very good op-ed to persuade these people to look at the world the way I looked at the world at that time.”
But instead of sort of, like, stopping, taking a deep breath, reading the letter to the editor that was criticizing my op-ed -- instead of just absorbing the message and thinking about it and reflecting about their argument and what their position was, and what they found disagreeable, offensive, wrong about my op-ed, which is what I should have done, my first reaction was, ‘I just gotta, I gotta do a better job next week. I’ll find a better way to convince them.’”
So eventually, when my strategy didn’t work, I didn’t convince anyone, I just quit. Maybe by the end of my junior year, I stopped writing.
When I read my old op-eds, it’s -- I'll tell you the truth -- it's painful to read. And then I literally can’t get through them, I can’t read one from beginning to end, because it’s so cringy, And so rude and it's so poorly written. But yet, so reflective of just a very insecure sort of person trying to work things out in a very messy way.
I started listening more to other people over the course of my college career, definitely my senior year. And then everything, everything after senior year has been this long, 30-year learning journey.
LLANOS: We’ll dive further into Mayes journey later in this episode, but before that let's take a look at The Collegian's editing process historically and its impact.
LLANOS: Jay Carter was a staff member of The Collegian from 1987 to 1991. He started out as a staff writer, became the sports editor his sophomore year, editorial editor his junior year and editor-in-chief his senior year. My conversation with him revolved around The Collegian’s editing process while he was on staff, as well as Carter’s thoughts on the op-eds published during his time, which included Mayes’s articles. Currently, Carter is the chair of the history department at St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania.
Carter's upbringing was similar to Mayes’s in that they both grew up in majority white environments. Carter grew up in Connecticut and New York and attended a public school. And as opposed to Mayes’s private, religious, evangelical school, Carter described his public school as liberal. Although the student population at both his high school and UR were equally overwhelmingly white, Carter found UR students to be more conservative than his public school peers, he said.
CARTER: My impression of the student body overall became pretty, pretty quickly apparent was that it was very conservative and very white. I mean, like I noted, I came from a school that was pretty liberal and very white. And so I moved to a school that was, was not that. Although it was interesting, because a lot of my friends, who kind of tended to identify as more liberal -- we, you kind of, we kind of made friends more quickly because we identified in a position that we thought was not the dominant culture at the university.
I really wish that I enabled or forced myself or had been helped to force myself to confront more, kind of, social and cultural challenges. Because there were so many people who came from the same kind of background as I did that even if we had different political views, or even if we had a different experience, that it was very easy to just be with a lot of people who had a very similar background to the one I did.
And so we didn’t we didn’t grow as much as we might have.
LLANOS: Carter joined The Collegian his first year at UR, before classes had even started, because he believed journalism was important and because he enjoyed writing, he said.
Carter went on to explain the timeline of how the newspaper was printed — at the time, paper copies of The Collegian were published weekly.
CARTER: So the paper would come out on Thursdays. And so I remember we had to -- so Wednesday night, you know, Wednesday night started, like after your classes on Wednesday, and would go...sometimes we’d be done by 11 or 12 [p.m.]. Um, but often we would be done at 1 or 2 [a.m.]. And occasionally we’d be done at like four or five in the morning. But we were definitely there all, you know, for six, seven, eight hours on Wednesdays laying out the paper.
And then when I was the editorial page editor, we didn’t really write stories, right, because we were doing op-ed pieces. And that was when Rick Mayes was involved. And Harvey Whitney is the other person, who was kind of Rick’s foil.
LLANOS: Like Mayes, Harvey Whitney wrote columns for The Collegian from 1988 to 1991. Whitney was criticized by students, including Mayes, for his views about race and what it was like to be a Black student at UR. For example, in an article published by The Collegian on September 14, 1989, titled “Dialect of racial conflict,” Whitney wrote that Black people would become their, quote: “historical opposite: the powerful, the dominant, the prominent. This shall not only be a revolutionary occurrence but the conclusion of Western history and fulfillment of the dialect,” end quote. Mayes responded to Whitney’s remarks on October 5, 1989, in an op-ed titled, “Harvey, lay down your arms,” in which he compared Whitney’s ideology to that of the Black Panthers and likened Whitney’s comments to Hitler’s remarks to the German public.
Whitney did not respond to The Collegian’s request for comment.
CARTER: Harvey was saying things about race that were incredibly difficult to say in America at the time, were really difficult to say at the University of Richmond at the time. And I think that, that history since then has demonstrated that he was -- that he was speaking some important truths that people should have paid more attention to at the time.
LLANOS: I asked Carter to explain how he decided which op-eds should be published.
CARTER: Harvey would write these letters, which were often about -- which were letters to the editor, often -- about his experience with racism on campus. And then when we brought him on board, he started writing his columns.
And that would be a question of just kind of figuring out the right tone, because sometimes he was more strident than we were comfortable with publishing. I would have to go back and look to see if I agree with my decisions that I made at the time, but we would talk with him. He pretty much had final say -- I would feel he had final say in what ultimately got printed, but we did sometimes talk to him about whether he wanted to say something in a particular way.
And then if I remember right -- and Dr. Mayes may have a different recollection -- if I remember right, he also started writing letters to the editor. I think taking exception to some of the things that Harvey had written, and then he wound up going on into the op-eds.
LLANOS: Carter said including Mayes’s conservative opinions and Whitney’s progressive opinions helped balance the paper.
CARTER: You know, we brought him on, kind of, we felt that was kind of a -- kind of a good thing, that we had, you know, one of the more conservative voices on campus, and one of the more -- I'll say liberal or progressive voices on the campus, both writing op-eds. And I thought that was a pretty good model.
But we didn’t have, I don’t think we had a lot of decisions to make in terms of, like, turning down material that was submitted to us. We -- our problem was more often trying to generate enough copy to get to eight pages. Because it was -- you know, it was different when things were online, now that they're online. Because we would have to decide in the, in the production process, right? How many pages are going to be this week? And you had to do it in multiples of four.
LLANOS: Carter said he had a good working relationship with Mayes and Whitney. But he acknowledged that sometimes conflicts arose, albeit for different reasons.
CARTER: It'd be interesting if Rick even remembers me; we didn’t deal with each other that much. I mean, I was, I was closer to Harvey, in terms of my politics. Harvey was -- could be difficult to work with sometimes, because he was, he was very convinced of his views. And he didn’t like...what I sometimes saw as constructive criticism he sometimes saw as kind of attempting to censor his position.
Whereas with Rick, the issue was, I mean, he was easier to work with but he sometimes -- he would write things that I just thought were factually not true. And so I didn’t, I wasn’t really comfortable putting them out.
LLANOS: Mayes described his relationship with The Collegian staff while he was a student as nonexistent and said he wished he hadn’t been allowed to publish his op-eds.
MAYES: The Collegian, they did have some, I think, very good people working on it upstairs, they, they lived there. They worked so hard on the paper on the third floor [of Tyler Haynes Commons].
My recollection was that they just wanted to view the op-ed section as like, sort of like a literary equivalent to improv. Like people could just sort of throw in whatever they wanted. It was free speech, and you can be as -- you could be as unfiltered and thoughtful as you wanted or wanted not to be. And so it wasn’t suit -- I think the rest of the paper, they had more regulations and policies about how things fit and things were done. But the op-ed was like, “Okay, just, it’s kind of a circus. Let it be a circus, because it’ll be entertaining.”
The op-ed section was just like, “Okay, whatever comes in that week, we’ll run it. We’re not even going to proofread it.”
LLANOS: Carter said he thought having both Mayes and Whitney as columnists helped further political and racial discussions on a campus where the student body was stereotyped as apathetic.
CARTER: I felt good about having given a forum for debate, which I think is important, both in a college and in a newspaper — so in a college newspaper there's no really better place to have a forum. And sometimes I feel like college papers get ignored. Um, because like, they’re not real papers, right? They’re just college papers. So the fact that people are paying attention to it, I felt, I felt pretty -- I felt pretty good about that.
But I had the sense that by 1991, when I graduated, I felt that the paper was stronger, like a stronger voice and played a stronger role in the student body than it did in 1987 when I started.
And I don’t know, I’m not gonna take credit for having led that, but I think it was part of a movement where it was becoming more, there were more people who were becoming more involved and more vocal and more interested in seeing their campus culture develop.
LLANOS: On the other hand, Mayes thought his pieces only did harm and didn’t have any impact on The Collegian or campus culture, he said.
MAYES: They just weren’t that that significant. So The Collegian didn’t have the profile back then that it has now. I do suspect that my op-eds were negative and unhelpful to, you know, those people on campus who were trying to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment.
LLANOS: Joe Williams attended UR from 1980 to 1984. During his time at UR, Williams wrote news articles for The Collegian. He also played football and was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Inc., a historically Black fraternity that no longer has a chapter at UR. Williams decided to get involved with The Collegian because he liked writing, he said. Williams now works as a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report, where he writes about how health affects racial inequality.
Although he didn’t recall any specific op-eds he thought shouldn’t have been published in The Collegian during his tenure, he mentioned an article criticizing scholarships given to Black students that was published after he graduated.
JOE WILLIAMS: It said that there should be a white scholarship program at Richmond, and that in order to fund it they should have a bake sale in the middle of Commons. And it was sarcastic, but it was actually very, you know, the person was, was lampooning the fact that they had special, you know, that there were special considerations for student of colors -- students of color. And he didn't get it, he just, and that -- and the fact that that op-ed got printed, and that there was not an uproar, you know, I think is, is just wrong.
Free speech means you get to say whatever you want, but it doesn't mean that you have to publish anything that you want. And I think there are standards. And I think that that speech is hate speech, especially if it foments white supremacy.
LLANOS: Although we were not able to find an op-ed presenting the specific position Williams talked about, we found several articles and op-eds in The Collegian archives about a cookie sale organized by the Liberty Society, a conservative nonpartisan group on campus that is no longer active.
This sale was held in the Tyler Haynes Commons on February 12, 2003, to criticize affirmative action. Members of the Liberty Society sold cookies at the prices of 80 cents and $1, based on the racial and ethnic background of each customer, according to an article published by The Collegian on February 13, 2003. Students who signed a petition to eliminate race from UR’s admission application received a free cookie.
WILLIAMS: The people who ran The Collegian when I was there certainly had a very big blind spot when it came to race. And I had a big blind spot not calling them out about it. But I don't think they should print it mainly because there are -- there are editorial standards, you know, and, and just because somebody writes it doesn't mean you have to print it.
LLANOS: Williams also discussed what it was like being one of the only Black students on campus. He recalled having the same feeling of isolation at The Collegian that he felt in his classes.
WILLIAMS: It felt a little strange too. Because, you know, again, I was the only Black guy in the room. And, you know, I was more or less -- because I had practice I couldn’t come to a lot of the meetings. So I would get my assignments remotely. But, you know, I still felt like I was, you know, an outsider.
I still felt like, I was...not that I didn’t belong there, because everybody was pretty cool and nobody really gave me a hard time, but just that, you know, looking around, I’m like, um -- you’d think it was something that I was used to but still kind of struck me that way.
LLANOS: Williams said The Collegian did not cover issues related to the experiences of students of color during his time at UR.
WILLIAMS: And this will sound very strange, but we didn’t have that kind of language back when I was going to U of R. I mean, it was just like, “Okay, you’re a minority and that’s how it goes.” Stuff is going on on campus, but, you know, if it pertains to a specific amount of people, specific group of people, we didn’t really cover it. Because it was never that much of an issue, and it wasn’t that much of an issue because we were always in the minority. And we didn’t really have you the language or the voice to make it happen.
LLANOS: One instance that stuck out to Williams was when he and other Black football players wrote letters to the then-president of UR, Bruce Heilman, who passed away in October 2019. They wrote these letters as a protest against the low numbers of Black students at UR. The Collegian did not cover their protest.
WILLIAMS: We complained to him, and we -- we ended up getting the first Cigna scholarships at U of R. They happened the next year, and they happened because of our letters. And so I was pretty proud of that.
LLANOS: The Cigna scholarship program at UR, which is funded by a global health service company in Philadelphia, began in 1982 and granted up to $5,000 dollars to qualified incoming Black students for each of their four years at UR, according to the Race and Racism Project.
WILLIAMS: We were frustrated at the time then, and I'm frustrated at the time now because, you know, I had this platform, but I was never really encouraged to use it. You know, when I wrote for The Collegian I could have written op-eds. And I was, you know, nobody ever thought to ask me, and I never thought to ask. So it was -- probably if I wanted to, I would have been able to make a case for myself. Um, but I just never -- it just never occurred to me because I felt like it was not a possibility.
LLANOS: Although Williams said The Collegian at the time did not generally represent students of color, Williams used his perspective as a Black student to find a story overlooked by white members of The Collegian staff.
WILLIAMS: I made a deliberate attempt to cover, um...like, I mean, this is, this is really small, but I mean, there was an artist who came to campus, and he was Black and he would sell paintings. He would make, it was like street art. And he would make these paintings in the Robins Center -- not the Robins Center, but the student hall. And people would walk by and look at him, and I remember thinking, “This is a story.”
So I interviewed him, and I wrote a story, and I took the pictures. You know, so that was my attempt, because I kind of had this buzzing in the back of my head that, that we should cover more Black issues. And that was one of the contributions that I made.
And, you know, again, if I, if I were to do it again -- I have a lot of regrets about the stuff that I did not do when I was on U of R’s campus and I did not do when I was working for The Collegian. And if I had to go do it over again, I absolutely would do it differently.
LLANOS: Williams described his feelings toward UR as a love/hate relationship. Williams expressed this sentiment in an article he wrote for the University of Richmond Alumni Magazine in its winter 2006 edition titled “The ‘fly in the milk bowl syndrome.’”
WILLIAMS: In it I wrote about how hard it was to go to school here. You know, how hard it was to go to school there. And it, it -- I love it because I wore the uniform on Saturdays, right? And I wrote for the paper. And I represented the school in more ways than one.
And I got an education that when they -- when they recruited me to come there, they said, “Well, when you leave, when you graduate, your education will get more valuable every year.” And that's true, my degree has gotten more valuable with every year. And it has opened up some doors for me that, that probably would have remained closed. That's my love part of the school, right?
My hate part of the school is it was really bad. You know, I did not have the college experience I wanted. You know, I didn't have that experience of, of, of, you know, a group of close friends or, you know, going to parties on Saturday night in, in, in the dorms. I didn't have the experience where I felt like I belonged.
And in my essay, I wrote this line that said: “Because I played football, I belonged to the university. But I felt like the university never belonged to me.” You know, I felt like it wasn’t my -- it wasn’t my school. So that’s where the love/hate comes from -- I mean it's a very interesting dynamic.
Writing articles for The Collegian about -- about, you know, the artist; writing articles about other issues, and including Black people who -- quoting Black people, you know, quoting my fellow Black students, and, you know, making, trying to do a little tiny bit to make this to make the school better.
And I feel really passionate about the fact that it should be my school. You know, and I don’t know if it ever will be, you know, even -- even as things change and evolve, I think, I don’t think it will ever be. I mean, I go to alumni events, and I still have the same kind of feeling that I had when I would go to the fraternities. [laughs]
LLANOS: Irina Rogova served as the Race and Racism Project’s archivist from 2016 to 2019. We talked about her experience finding racist and sexist content in The Collegian’s archives as well as in the Virginia Baptist Historical Society’s archives.
Rogova became an archivist to help highlight the voices that are often excluded from archives, she said. Rogova is currently working at Kansas State University to digitize its archives.
IRINA ROGOVA: A lot of archives traditionally focus on people with power and in the U.S. context that's primarily wealthy, white men. That’s what a lot of archival collections across all sorts of archives include.
And a lot of voices of oppressed folks, marginalized folks, are either not included in the archive at all or are not, like, good representations of those communities. Um, so I always intended to bring that into my work, and no matter what archive I ended up at. And it just so worked out that the Race and Racism Project was, like, perfectly aligned with my professional goals.
LLANOS: Aspects of Rogova’s work as an archivist for the Race and Racism Project included working with students to go through UR’s archives, located at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and Center for Baptist Heritage Studies, to find materials pertaining to race and racism at UR, and digitizing those materials.
Rogova was not surprised to find content that she found offensive because of its dated ideas about gender and race in The Collegian and UR’s archives.
ROGOVA: So it makes perfect sense that at a predominantly white, Baptist -- Southern Baptist institution in Richmond, The Collegian would often be putting forth the opinions of the majority of that student body. Um...and there’s also like the, like, who gets to go and write for The Collegian? Like what are, what are the steps of having to join The Collegian?
LLANOS: Rogova said finding first person accounts such as Collegian op-eds served a purpose of revealing what beliefs were normalized enough to publish.
ROGOVA: The Collegian is kind of a really helpful historical tool that represents what a lot of people believed at the time and what people felt comfortable publishing at the time.
What I always really like to remind students is, like, the reason that we have all of these, frankly, racist materials in our archives, materials that depict the racist beliefs of other people, is because those people thought they were right. You don’t write something down if you don't think that you’re right.
And that’s a benefit to us as archivists because we have those materials. It’s great that people didn’t destroy those materials, because we are able to have a clearer picture of people’s motivations, because they wrote down their opinions. And I think that The Collegian is similar to that.
I have definitely gotten down, like, the rabbit hole of The Collegian before of: Someone publishes an op-ed, and then there’s a response the week after that, and then there’s a response to their response. And those are some of my favorite archival things to, like, find. Because you are literally witnessing a conversation between two or more people about a topic, that just took a really long time to get out because they didn’t have a social media platform to post it on.
LLANOS: Historically, The Collegian leadership and staff has not been racially or ethnically diverse. For the past 105 years, every Collegian editor-in-chief has been white. This year, 2020, The Collegian has its first Hispanic editor-in-chief. This lack of ethnic and racial diversity on staff inherently affects the Collegian’s ability to be tuned in to the lives of Black, Indigenous and other students of color, and therefore will be less likely to represent marginalized students in its reporting.
This problem has consequences that extend beyond the opinion pieces published by The Collegian. By failing to represent the lives and experiences of students of color in any of its sections, The Collegian would fail its mission. For The Collegian to truly serve its stated mission of reporting the truth accurately and inclusively, it is not enough for it to denounce racism. It must also work toward more ethnically and racially diverse representation in its staff, leadership and reporting.
Carter talked about the lack of racial diversity in The Collegian and the campus overall during his time at UR.
CARTER: It was a huge problem, it was -- the lack of diversity. Although I don't think The Collegian was any, any less diverse than the campus as a whole. So it was a very white campus, and it was a very white paper.
LLANOS: Williams thinks the lack of racial diversity in The Collegian had a negative impact on its reporting, he said.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think the lack of diversity in The Collegian absolutely affected its reporting. I mean, I think there's no question about that. Mainly because I can't think of another Black staff member in my era.
It is a shame because nobody ever thought it was a priority, including us, including me. Nobody ever thought that we should be represented and that we should have representation in the pages and that they should cover our issues.
But, you know, it was a, it was a -- the standard excuse is that it was a different time. But I think we all still kind of failed in that regard.
LLANOS: On September 4, 2017, three weeks after the white supremacist and neo-Nazi Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Claire Comey, then-editor-in-chief of The Collegian, wrote a letter to the reader stating that The Collegian would not publish any articles containing racist or prejudicial views.
CLAIRE COMEY: --kind of felt like it was time for The Collegian to really critically discuss how we were going to write about and consider racism and reporting about racism. Particularly because I really feel like and felt like, “If we don't actively discuss this as a team, then we won't be prepared to explain why we made the decisions we made in the future about what we would or wouldn't publish,” and I wanted to think critically about that.
LLANOS: Comey received backlash for writing the letter from people who thought it restricted freedom of speech, she said.
COMEY: Once it was published, there was pushback. I personally experienced pushback from folks saying stuff in classrooms that I was in in my political science major, when students wouldn’t know that I was in the room, or that I was editor-in-chief, or that I wrote the article.
And folks would bring up, you know, really valid reactions about the First Amendment, and about how, you know, journalists are supposed to be unbiased and how we’re not supposed to be gatekeepers of information and we need to give a gauge of what’s going on in society.
And so I did get some pushback from a lot of folks, from some reasonable people. But I also got a lot of affirmation too, from people of color on our campus, from leaders on our campus.
And -- I think the most important thing that happened to me after the article was published was the dialogue.
LLANOS: She and Collegian staff at the time decided that the effect of publishing an opinion piece upholding racist views was more damaging than restricting what op-eds would be published, she said. This prompted Comey and her staff to discuss the role of The Collegian in campus culture.
COMEY: And we kind of talked about the role we have to play in changing campus culture and in serving justice and in really being the first, kind of, makers of history -- the people who are saying the first thing, reporting first things that are happening on our campus.
And we all agreed that it’s so important that we report on things that maybe we don’t agree with or we wouldn’t do necessarily, but that when it comes to racism and hatred and hate speech -- that just has no room in our newsroom. It has no room in our paper.
Uh, and that is just because, you know, that it’s not an opinion that we’re looking to put up so that -- because we don’t think there should be academic debate. We don’t think there’s a considerable debate to be had on the pages of our newspaper or on the website.
Because it shouldn’t be debated anymore. And as a predominantly white institution, which The Collegian is and also the University of Richmond is, it’s really important that we critically look at what role we’re playing in ending systemic racism. And if we gave and bolstered racist opinions, we would be perpetuating it by giving it a platform and uplifting it and we would be complicit in that.
And I think that is something when you just publish anything, any opinion, and you don’t think critically about how you’re furthering racist systems -- it’s really easy to fall into that trap and say, “Well, the First Amendment protects this.” But, you know, I think there’s a difference between protected speech and hate speech. And I think that was kind of the distinction we were trying to draw.
LLANOS: Mayes expressed his regret in writing op-eds that promoted racist views.
MAYES: It’s really painful for me to realize that because, you know, that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s what I’m working for now, you know, 30 years later. I do Living Learning Programs, and I do the [Associated Colleges of the South] program. And I do all the admissions open houses like the one you came to, and I do summer programs because my heart -- my heart for U of R is really for the underdog students. The ones that come here, and they don’t really feel like, like this is their home. They don’t feel as welcome as the other students do.
So it pains me greatly that the op-eds that I wrote back then were not for the underdogs. They weren’t for the students who were, who didn't fit in. And that’s -- I think it was negative for them.
LLANOS: After graduating from UR, Mayes interned in London with a Conservative member of Parliament. His experience focused on the British National Health Service. Mayes recalled this internship as the first significant event that altered his political views.
MAYES: There’s two parties in England, or in Britain. There's the Labor Party, basically, and the Conservative Party. So of course, I went to the Conservative Party. And I opted for a Conservative member of Parliament.
And...his, his topic was healthcare. And I didn’t, I thought that was neat, but I didn't really care what he was into. I was just wanting to work for a conservative member of Parliament.
But he was really passionate about the National Health Service. And right there off the bat, my -- like, my mind sort of exploded because I’m, like, “Wait a minute, you are -- the name of your party is Conservative; you are a Conservative politician. Like I’m conservative and you’re Conservative. And you love this government-run health service, this government-run health system. That doesn’t make any sense.”
So that whole summer visiting doctors, and hospitals, and nurses and patients, and hearing them talk about the National Health Service, and the way they supported it and wanted to make it better -- it just had a huge impact on me.
LLANOS: Mayes’s internship in London ignited his passion for healthcare. After returning from London, Mayes enrolled in a political science master’s program at Miami University in Ohio. After his master’s program, Mayes interned for the George H. W. Bush administration studying Medicaid.
MAYES: I spent a whole year studying Medicaid, basically. And studying Medicaid is like a window onto inequality in America. And it’s like, it’s like the ultimate graduate program: You study Medicaid, you’re studying inequality and racial disparities. And you’re seeing it up close and personal every day.
And so when I studied Medicaid, I was studying in America. And I was studying the birth lottery about how some people who are born into affluent families or -- they’re lucky, they, they win the birth lottery. And if you’re born poor in the United States, if you look at the Medicaid data -- you, you're likely to stay poor.
And so studying Medicaid allows you to look at all kinds of institutional inequalities and injustice -- that’s racial and otherwise -- because the data show it to you over and over and over again. The more you study the data, the more you see these patterns of racial disparities. And...you just can’t ignore them.
So a lot of the myths that I believed from high school that, “Oh, you know, America is mostly equal, and mostly -- people have mostly equal opportunity” -- when you start studying health care, and you start studying Medicaid, you just cannot believe that more than two days because the data won’t let you believe it.
LLANOS: Mayes then went on to do more healthcare research with the American Association of Retired Persons while getting a doctorate in political science from the University of Virginia. Mayes’s internship with the AARP was the first time he had worked closely with politically liberal people, he said.
Once Mayes graduated from UVA, he attempted to get a teaching position at UR, but there were no openings at the time. Instead, he went to a two-year program to study mental health policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
MAYES: I literally didn’t know what mental health policy was. I didn’t have the faintest idea what depression was or anxiety, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, or autism or any of the things that now are like -- it’s like one of my main areas of teaching. I was totally and completely ignorant.
Because the biggest disparities in all of health care, the biggest unfairnesses and injustices are all in mental health. Because people who have affluence and means can get great mental health care and the people who don’t get none.
LLANOS: Following his work at UC Berkeley, Mayes got a position as a professor at UR.
MAYES: There was a part of me that wanted to come back and say, “Okay, I'm a totally different person now than I was back in the 1980s. And I want to do this all over again, knowing what I know now. And I want to do it better. And I want to, you know, make up, I want to -- I want to heal the mistakes I made.”
It’s so fortunate that I got to come back here at U of R, that, the place that kind of began to help me make -- U of R is the place, even though I didn’t do well as a student and I wrote those terrible op-eds, U of R is still the place that got me on a new path.
And it made it possible for me to have a new life and a new way of thinking and a new career. And so I want to come back and also just sort of sign -- as a, as a way of gratitude. To say, "I’m really grateful for what U of R has given to me."
It’s good to be humbled once in a while -- and not everyday -- you don’t need -- you don’t want this every day of your life. But I think it’s good every once in a while to revisit a part of your life that you need to come to terms with and apologize for.
And, you know, you reaching out to me has allowed me a chance to apologize to whoever read those op-eds and whoever might come across them now, and say: “I’m really, really sorry. And I wish I hadn't written them and they were wrong. And please forgive me.”
Because in the process of coming to terms with that, that’s how you -- that’s how you move on. And that’s how -- if you’ve made mistakes in life, and you’ve done things that you’re not proud of, you can just ignore them, them forever.
But a better thing is to go address it. Address why you did it, try to figure it out; apologize for it; learn from it; tell others what you’ve learned from it and try to encourage other people not to make the mistakes you made. And then you get to move on. And there’s like a, there’s a certain sense of healing that comes from that.
LLANOS: When I was doing my research for the Race and Racism Project, I was disappointed by the op-eds published by The Collegian, considering that they promoted racist, homophobic and sexist ideas. UR’s campus has changed in some ways since Mayes's undergraduate years, but events such as the racist graffiti and the Abolish Richmond Greek Life movement in 2020 show that it still struggles with issues of discrimination and exclusion based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and more.
As a newspaper, one of The Collegian’s duties is to hold institutions and people in power accountable for their errors, including contributing to racist systems. But as we do this work, we must not exclude The Collegian’s part in the narrative of UR’s racist history.
The Collegian has provided a platform for discriminatory views, and it consequently bears responsibility for promoting them to the public.
Despite recent steps in the right direction, The Collegian still lacks diversity, particularly racial and ethnic, in its staff and leadership, which limits its ability to fully cover campus issues. The Collegian, just like many other institutions, has much work to be done to truly fulfill its mission.
Thank you for listening to Beneath the Surface, a Collegian podcast.
All articles discussed in this episode can be found in The Collegian’s archives at www.collegian.richmond.edu.
This episode was written, narrated, reported and produced by me, Jackie Llanos.
This episode was edited by Conner Evans and Nina Joss. And our music, as always, was provided by the amazing Nathan Burns.
We’ll see you next time.
Contact news editor Jackie Llanos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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