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A photograph of Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin speaking behind a lectern bearing Virginia Commonwealth University’s logo and the letters “VCU.”

More than 100 students reportedly walked out as Governor Glenn Youngkin spoke at Virginia Commonwealth University’s commencement Saturday—one day after its board spiked a racial literary requirement.

The Washington Post / Contributor

Starting this fall, undergraduate students at two public Virginia universities, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason, were going to be required to take diversity-themed coursework. The efforts had been years in the making, the classes had been crafted and faculty bodies had already signed off.

But earlier this semester, the impending mandates faced 11th-hour scrutiny from Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin. His administration asked to review the syllabi for the classes—a move that one Virginia Commonwealth faculty member called “hostile state scrutiny.” A spokesman said that Youngkin had heard concerns from parents and students about “a thinly veiled attempt to incorporate the progressive left’s groupthink on Virginia’s students.”

The spokesman also mentioned concerns from the universities’ Board of Visitors members. And sure enough, some of Youngkin’s appointees to these boards began publicly pushing back on the mandates. George Mason board member Robert Pence, who denounced DEI-related “indoctrination,” asked mandate supporters at a May 2 board meeting, “What are you afraid of? That people won’t take this course if you don’t force feed ’em? That’s what you’re afraid of.”

“Once these courses start, they’re never going to go away, they’re never going to go away,” Pence said.

All this led up to last week, when both universities announced that their mandates wouldn’t take effect this fall. The day after Virginia Commonwealth’s announcement, more than 100 students walked out of the commencement address Youngkin gave at the university. The Washington Post reported they were “demonstrating support for Palestinians and protesting some of the Republican’s crusade against efforts to promote racial equity in education.”

Did Youngkin’s administration specifically ask these universities to act against the diversity course mandates? A spokesman for the governor emailed the same answer for both: “this is a decision made by the Board of Visitors,” and referred Inside Higher Ed to the universities for comment. Though the universities provided some emailed information Friday, neither provided interviews.

A Public Board Vote, and a Pass-off to the Provost

At Virginia Commonwealth University, the decision came with an air of finality from the board itself, the ultimate power over the university. It put the issue on its Friday agenda and voted 10 to 5 to reject imposing a “racial literacy” requirement to graduate—just three months before fall 2024 classes were to begin, and the new mandate was to kick in. Students would’ve been able to satisfy this mandate by taking one of any course from a list including, among others, Colorism in Society, Reading Race, and Race and Racism in the United States.

The university administration had previously stopped the requirement from taking effect last fall, with officials saying the university lacked enough racial literary classes and class seats. Last month, the requirement appeared to be going forward when Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos announced on the university’s website that, “Thanks to the dedication and expertise of our faculty,” the university now had “the capacity to support a racial literacy requirement.”

But then the board stepped in. Multiple members said they supported offering the racial literacy courses—but not requiring students to take any of them. “The most inclusive, student-centered environment for thought, inquiry and expression is one that optimizes student choice,” said Ellen Fitzsimmons, a Youngkin appointee. “And I believe that we can respect the work of the faculty and students by offering these compelling learning opportunities as such, but not as a mandate.”

However, H. Benson Dendy III, an appointee of Youngkin’s Democratic predecessor, objected, arguing that it was “a violation of shared governance” for the board to veto the requirement following faculty approval. He said faculty members and others had been working to create the classes for four years. “It is very late in the process to reject this recommendation,” he said, noting that the university had told faculty members that “if the total number of available seats across all course sections meets the requirements set last October, then we can move forward.”

At George Mason, the news came down differently. Instead of its Board of Visitors publicly and permanently rejecting its new requirement, its interim provost announced a one-year delay in a Wednesday email to employees.

“It is clear that some constituencies, including some members of our Board of Visitors, still have reservations,” wrote Kenneth D. Walsh, the interim provost. He noted the late hour. “Given that fall registration opens for first-year students in a matter of weeks, we must put forward a definitive answer now,” he wrote. “And my answer to whether to implement the requirement is neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no.’ Rather, it is ‘not yet.’”

But Walsh won’t be making the future decision. The new provost starts July 1.

The delay came after some last-minute input from a recently formed board committee. In a May 2 report, it recommended changes to the soon-to-be-implemented requirement, which is called Just Societies. The report said that “if these recommendations cannot be completed in a timely manner, the provost can decide to delay.” He did.

Just Societies evolved out of a former university president’s 2018 call for a single required course on DEI and wellbeing. It had morphed into a planned requirement for undergraduates to take two out of many courses that teach diversity-related skills along with their main material. Among the 35 qualifying courses listed on the university website were “Scientific Racism and Human Variation” and “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies,” but also “Modern Architecture” and “Grand Challenges to Human Security.”

Just a week before Walsh announced the postponement of the requirement, George Mason board members had received and discussed the board committee report. It recommended changes to Just Societies, included expanding “the number and breadth of courses” to meet the requirement—beyond the 35 already approved to meet the requirement.

Despite the interim provost’s optimism, the board may soon tilt further toward a more emphatic opposition to a mandate. Reginald (Reg) Brown, a Youngkin appointee, told Inside Higher Ed Friday that “there was concern on the part of a majority of the board members about moving to a Just Societies mandate … without further discussion with the new provost and the incoming board members. There’ll be three or four new incoming board members in July.” Youngkin appointees already occupy half the 16 George Mason Board seats.

Youngkin’s first executive order as governor was to root out critical race theory and other “inherently divisive concepts” from public K-12 schools. When the George Mason board discussed the board committee report on May 2, Michael J. Meese, a Youngkin appointee and a member of the committee, expressed support for emulating that order in higher education. “I think it also should apply to us—that you should not have DEI offices or any other offices or any other professor that is promoting inherently divisive concepts,” Meese said.

Brown, despite continuing to question the Just Societies mandate, said “I don’t believe that the university should shy away from inherently divisive concepts.”

Defeat or ‘Progress’ for DEI Advocates?

“It’s dead, officially,” Mignonne C. Guy said Friday after the Virginia Commonwealth board voted to reject the racial literacy course requirement that she, other faculty members and students had long pushed for. Guy is an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth’s African-American studies department, which she used to chair.

The push for the mandate emerged in part from Zoom discussions with students in 2020–21 about the COVID-19 pandemic and police killings of African Americans. Guy was always pessimistic, saying she never expected the university to actually implement the requirement. But, despite her calling the outcome long ago, she said it “still hurts … when I was listening to the vote, I couldn’t breathe, and now my heart feels like a boulder is in my chest.”

Guy accused her university’s administration of punting the issue to the governor. “VCU is 100 percent responsible for this debacle,” she said, adding that it could’ve enacted the requirement four years ago.

“They leveraged individuals who could weaponize the state against the students, faculty and the communities that have fought so hard for this initiative,” Guy said. “While the provost declared support of this initiative during the meeting, I question his sincerity given the fact that he’s had his entire tenure to implement this initiative. The president himself seems to have changed course rather quickly.”

Melissa Broeckelman-Post, George Mason’s outgoing Faculty Senate president, was on the board committee that analyzed Just Societies, alongside some board members and administrators. She wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that “faculty are deeply concerned that some BOV [Board of Visitors] members are trying to interfere with curriculum processes that are clearly in the purview of the faculty.”

“Faculty have gone through a deliberative, evidence-based process for developing the Just Societies learning outcomes to prepare our students for the contemporary world, and employers and accreditors clearly articulate the need to require these learning outcomes,” Broeckelman-Post wrote.

Not all faculty members at George Mason supported the requirement. Mark Koyama, an associate economics professor, wrote to the board opposing it. Koyama told Inside Higher Ed that a huge amount of work went toward developing the requirement, but said his “general concern is that both students and faculty have limited resources and limited time and we’re always being required to do new things.”

Koyama had further written to board members that he shares “the concerns of many that the specificity of the learning outcomes” of the Just Societies courses veers “too close to compelling faculty to teach and assess a particular ideology or set of beliefs.” He told Inside Higher Ed that “people were riled up for the culture war story” but he thinks the university administration listened to concerns that the requirement would push a particular perspective.

In the wake of the vote at Virginia Commonwealth, both Guy and Kristin Reed, an assistant professor and co-founder of Virginia Commonwealth’s chapter of the United Campus Workers union, advocated for replacing appointed university board members with elected ones.

Reed wrote in an email that “Universities in Virginia need elected boards with true accountability to the people of the commonwealth—not corporate appointees with their own agenda. There can be no free speech on campus while governor appointees govern by fiat.” Guy said “this was political, they played political games with these young people’s lives.”

Guy said Virginia Commonwealth “robbed all of us” of the time “spent on this initiative.” However, she was still declaring victory Friday, noting the students’ work and the Faculty Senate’s support.

“We won and that, that, this Board of Visitors, this president and this provost can never erase,” she said. “We already won and these students have created the groundwork and laid the foundation for those who come after them. That’s how progress works.”

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