In a summer defined by historic racial uproar, many businesses and institutions felt the call to clarify their stance on the divisive racial matters that have rocked the nation.
Some statements were well-received; others were seen as pandering, insufficient, or tone deaf. Virginia Wesleyan released its first statement on June 2, describing the institution’s condemnation of “hate and violence” and concern for “those who have had to endure these painful inequalities.” The institution affirmed its commitment to an inclusive and welcoming campus. But to many, as covered by WAVY-TV last month, the statement didn’t land as intended.
Senior Asha Richards was one of the first to respond to the initial post. In her reply, Richards described an incident from 2017 when the dance team was publicly reprimanded after several members took a knee during the national anthem at a basketball game. They were told the following semester that they were no longer permitted to perform at games. Richards says that her post about the incident wasn’t meant to attack the school, but to spur self-reflection.
“It was just something to say something like, ‘Hey, you should probably think of your—think of actions that you’ve done in the past and maybe improve on it’… just a slight acknowledgement, you know? I wasn’t expecting anything major.”
Richards’ response was deleted on Instagram and Facebook, and she was blocked from the university’s pages on both of those as well as Twitter. Other posters began to share their stories, and repost those that were being hidden or deleted.
Current students and alumni criticized the school for silencing concerns, and for seeming not to offer the full-throated sort of support for Black students that many felt was necessary given the events of the summer.
The University issued a revised statement in response on June 4, which included the phrase many in the comments were looking for: Black Lives Matter. It went on to say, “We want to be clear that the University stands with our Black students, alumni, and community members against these painful injustices and inequalities. We hear you, students. We hear you, alumni. And we want to hear more. We are committed now more than ever to assessing our practices, reflecting on our mission and culture, and further educating ourselves on how we can be part of the solution for positive change. We are resolved to fostering a truly inclusive environment.” Richards was unblocked on social media, though she says she never received an apology.
Some consequences were further-reaching. Sydney Covey (’16), VWU’s Graduate of the Decade, had taken to social media when it became clear the school was deleting comments. “Virginia Wesleyan University has to do better. MY institution has to do better,” Covey wrote in a Facebook reply to the school’s initial post. “…You cannot claim to be diverse and inclusive when you continue to silence or fire people who think differently or who want you to understand the real problems.” Covey went on to issue a call to action from both the Alumni Council, of which she was Secretary, and from President Miller and the administration.
In an interview, Covey suggested that those who viewed her post as an attack had taken the wrong message from it. “The thing that matters is that there are Marlins—current Marlins and past Marlins—who are hurting, and we need to talk about how we move forward.” Currently, Covey will not be part of that conversation on campus. In early September, Covey received notice that her position on the Alumni Council was being put on “pause.”
That was news to then-Chair of the Alumni Council, Rob Kohler. “I was basically told about it, I wasn’t consulted, I didn’t agree with it, I wasn’t asked. I was just told, essentially, in an email,” Kohler said about Covey’s pause. He was then informed that someone else had already been tapped to fill Covey’s position on the Council. “[Administration] said that they didn’t have to, essentially, consult us.”
Kohler resigned his position shortly thereafter. In his resignation letter, sent to the Executive Committee and the rest of the Alumni Council, Kohler said the following: “The VWU Facebook page post of June 2, 2020… and the June 4th post… are troubling by themselves, but the actions of others to silence and continue to silence do not follow a vision of inclusiveness.” He outlined concerns about the disenfranchising minority alumni, before continuing on to address Covey’s removal. “Additionally, I was informed of the forced ‘pause’ of a fellow Alumni Council member without proper due process. In fact, the Alumni Council leadership recommendations were not sought…. The question one needs to ask is, how could I, or anyone else, effectively lead the Council when our thoughts regarding such important matters are not requested?”
Vice-Chair Rob Gillikin resigned the same day from the Alumni Council and the President’s Corporate Leaders Council, citing similar concerns about the lack of due process. This left the Alumni Council without its senior staff just weeks into the school year. New leadership has since been appointed.
President Miller declined an in-person interview, but the President’s Office responded to a list of questions sent via email at his request. The administration declined to comment on who made the call to block students and delete comments over the summer, citing a school policy against commenting about personnel-related matters. Asked about the social media policy moving forward, administration said that “Virginia Wesleyan encourages free discourse…. Our current social media management practice reflects this and encourages civil conversation, but prohibits inflammatory and derogatory commentary on University pages.”
The administration stated that the matters brought up over the summer were “addressed appropriately,” and emphasized the valuable work on inclusiveness carried out by the President’s Council for Inclusive Communities [PCIC], Nusbaum Center, and the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities.
PCIC met in August and September, and laid out priorities that include identifying and ending discriminatory practices in our institution, amplifying the voice of students, educating the campus community and “sustain[ing] a culture of civility, respect, and open dialogue.”
By Brianna Sandy