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Monday, October 18, 2021

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OPINION: Do Black Lives Matter at the University of Richmond?

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Do Black lives matter at the University of Richmond? As a sociologist, I offer that we take the time to answer this question empirically. As an activist, I’m ready with the receipts. 

As of late, the most telling evidence is UR leadership’s refusal to meet the demands of the Protect Our Web movement put forth by the UR Black Student Coalition. Much of on-campus conversation and media attention has centered on the first demand: to rename one building that honors a slave-owner, Ryland Hall, and another that honors a segregationist and eugenicist, Freeman Hall. The conclusion of a presidential commission on institutional history resulted in UR’s decision to retain Ryland’s name as is (while giving a shout-out to his slaves with a terrace out back) and join Freeman’s name with that of a former slave and staunch critic of his, John Mitchell Jr

In the face of threats of disaffiliation from Black student-activists and their allies, the Board of Trustees' rearticulated their refusal to rename the two buildings. In a March 17 statement, the Board stated, “removing building names is inconsistent with the pursuit of our educational mission, which informs all of our actions.” 

This refusal was followed by a gross display of racially-charged verbal abuse by the rector of the Board, Paul Queally, of a Black woman staff member and Black student leaders in the trustees’ in-person meetings with faculty, staff and student leaders last Friday. In a meeting between a select few trustees and members of the University Faculty Senate and University Staff Advisory Council, Queally referred to white students as “regular students,” in contrast to Black and brown students, thus implying the view that whites are the default and everyone else is irregular or abnormal. 

It seems relevant to note that the Board’s membership includes just two people of color -- one Black man and one Latina woman -- and the remaining 22 trustees include 14 white men and eight white women. Overwhelmingly, the trustees are CEOs, heads of management and marketing and law firms and other likely wealthy people outside of higher education. 

Black students’ hurt and frustration and campaign to withhold their labor and money from UR was not met with urgent requests to meet to find compromise; rather, it was met with indifference, responded to with a brief, cold public statement relayed in an email. In-person meetings in which the trustees rearticulated their refusal within the first few moments followed, along with the berating of Black women staff and students by Queally, a white man. 

While UR’s refusal to budge on renaming comes as a slap in the face to its Black students and their allies, I find its response to the BSC’s demand for more culturally competent mental health resources most offensive. In his March 17 email to the university, President Ronald Crutcher recognized the urgent need for mental health services for students of color. He then explained that UR’s Counseling and Psychological Services’s mostly-white staff already feels that they have done enough to meet those needs. 

UR sees Black students’ struggles with isolation, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, poor diet or disordered eating and other mental, physical and sexual health problems. Its leadership even hears Black student-activists’ pleas for more care that centers Black experiences, in the midst of a global pandemic, in the midst of enduring anti-Black and anti-Asian violence. 

And, in response, UR has said it is already doing enough. And, for that, Black students -- UR believes -- should be grateful.

A Look at the Numbers 

UR’s indifference to the well-being, safety and sense of belonging of its Black students comes amidst a potential drop in (or at least stagnation of) Black enrollment at UR. According to UR’s Fall 2020 Factbook, just 6% of UR’s undergraduate and law school populations are Black – a university supposedly “of Richmond,” a city that is 57% Black, yet located in Henrico County, which is 29% Black. 

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Additionally, just 3% of business majors and 4% of MBA students are Black, and that school’s unwelcoming atmosphere is a near-universal truth among students of color. 

Based on department websites, the representation of Black faculty is worse. Among the leadership and business schools’ combined instructional staff of 80 people, only three are Black (two in the former and one in the latter).

Although the School of Arts and Sciences fares somewhat better, six of its 22 departments employ zero Black faculty members. Two other departments in the School of Arts and Sciences  lack Black tenured or tenure-track faculty. Only one of the School of Arts and Science’s department chairs is Black, alongside three others who are also of color. 

Despite the disproportionately low numbers of Black students and faculty, UR seems to consider the appearance of Black faces invaluable. Criticisms of UR communication’s heavy use of images of Black students and employees have become louder. Black women and Black LGBTQ+ students are tokenized in posters, flyers, banners, brochures, websites and videos on and off campus, often featured for programs and initiatives they are not part of or even want to be. 

Beyond tokenization, UR’s self-congratulations for high marks in The Princeton Review and other rankings of top colleges feature images of happy, smiling diverse groups of students. However, UR does not acknowledge its consistent placement among the top 10 (and sometimes top 5) most race- and class-segregated universities in the United States. I can reliably ask a first-semester, first-year student where they are supposed to sit, based on their race, in the campus dining hall. 

Do Black Lives Matter: A Faculty Perspective

My eight years at UR – first a fearful pre-tenure assistant professor and now a beleaguered tenured associate professor – suggest that Black lives matter at UR to the extent that they uphold the racist status quo of UR. I have learned that we are “conditionally accepted” at UR; we are merely tolerated so long as we do not challenge white norms. I am treated with respect so long as I refrain from demanding equal respect to my white counterparts. 

I once overheard a white department chair verbally harass a Black woman tenure-track colleague for daring to challenge well-documented systematic racist and sexist bias in students’ course evaluations. No sanctions followed, and those same biased course evaluations remain in use; indeed, they were used to decide that colleague’s and my own fate for tenure and promotion. 

I once found myself having to apologize to a white woman colleague for relaying Black students’ concerns about discriminatory treatment from a fellow white professor. There was no further concern for the students’ well-being and success. Rather, I was reminded I shouldn’t believe everything that (Black) students say.

I was once chided by a senior colleague for suggesting that my department prioritize expertise in racial and ethnic studies in a job search for a new faculty member, reminded that we have to hire “the best and the brightest,” which is code for opposing Affirmative Action. (Mind you, I had not asked that the candidates be of color, just that they had expertise in racial issues.)

I was once criticized for failing to give a white colleague more credit in my love letter to Black students published in The Collegian. She felt slighted because my essay didn’t acknowledge her status as a good white ally. 

I had no choice but to resign from a search committee that repeatedly favored Black candidates whom I would describe as docile and knowing their “place” in the otherwise white office with a long history of anti-Black harassment. Many offices and departments prefer “safe” Black employees. 

After I  created a listserv for UR employees of color, white employees complained of reverse racism; one staff member in facilities joined the list under false pretenses, later revealing himself as white when he accused us of practicing discrimination. Once those listserv discussions evolved into in-person social gatherings, white employees complained to Human Resources, again, of reverse racism. Meanwhile, the countless committees, offices, departments, teams and events that are all-white or mostly-white go unnoticed and unquestioned. 

In light of these white aggressions, I sought the assistance of HR and the Bias Resource Team, only to find myself having to defend my “radical” actions -- “radical,” here, was used to describe maintaining a listserv and hosting pay-your-own-way lunches at the dining hall.  

I could go on. The dismissal of concerns from people of color in ramming a conservative-friendly Freedom of Expression policy down our throats. The foot-dragging on approving an Africana studies program. The complaints of racial profiling on campus and racist double-standards in policing campus parties that are met with weak excuses that essentially conflate Blackness with criminality. The historic understaffing of the UR Integrated Science Experience (URISE) program, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and other initiatives that center the needs of students of color. The (failed) attempt to rename the Race and Racism Project as the tepid “Race & Memory Project.” The countless stories I’ve heard from Black women at UR who have been thrown under the bus by Black men colleagues gunning to elevate their status in white eyes.

So, do Black lives matter at UR? Do they matter as much as the lives of white people at the university? Obviously not, but I keep hoping UR will prove me wrong. 

Contact contributor Eric Anthony Grollman at egrollma@richmond.edu.

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