Two Virginia colleges face backlash after backtracking on plans to require diversity courses

(CNN) — When the police killings of Black people, including George Floyd set off racial unrest across the country in 2020, Marie Vergamini decided she wanted to do her part to help address systemic racism.

So, Vergamini, a doctoral student and adjunct instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, joined a committee of faculty and students who were creating a racial literacy curriculum.

Vergamini said they created lessons that covered the history of slavery in the United States, the Jim Crow era, racism against Asian Americans, and the nationwide movement to remove Confederate statues, including those in the state’s capital, Richmond, which was once the seat of the Confederacy.

The curriculum, she said, was designed to benefit students of all races.

“As a White woman, I have a lot of privileges and instead of being complicit in these systems I want to change these systems,” Vergamini said. “My privileges should be basic human rights for everybody.”

The committee planned to make the racial literacy curriculum part of general education requirements for incoming students. Students would need to take one three-credit course out of a list of approved classes, faculty members told CNN.

But in May, months before the course mandate was set to be rolled out this fall, VCU’s Board of Visitors voted to drop the requirement. The Board, which is made up of 16 members appointed by the governor of Virginia, voted 10 – 5 against making the curriculum mandatory, according to a statement from the University.

The university said the board was committed to “upholding academic freedom while empowering students with flexibility and autonomy in their educational journey.”

“This is not about the content of our courses, only the graduation mandate,” VCU Board Rector Todd Haymore said in the statement.

The decision came as another Virginia college, George Mason University, announced it would postpone a “Just Societies” diversity-themed course requirement for incoming students that was initially set to take effect in the fall.

In a letter addressed to his colleagues, Kenneth D. Walsh, George Mason’s interim executive vice president and provost, said the school would delay implementation of the courses to the 2025-26 academic year.

“This is clearly an issue that engenders strong feelings on every side,” Walsh said. “Ironically, finding a civil and respectful path forward on this kind of issue is precisely the type of activity the ‘Just Societies’ courses are meant to support students accomplishing.”

The courses will still be optional for students at both universities in the upcoming school year.

But the decisions to drop the course requirements at VCU and postpone them at George Mason have faced backlash from faculty and students who say the material is meant to prepare students for the real world by offering a better understanding of the nation’s history of racism and discrimination.

Removing the requirement, Vergamini told CNN, means many students will likely not gain that knowledge.

“It’s just not going to have the impact that we need it to have,” she said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion programs and curriculum at colleges in Virginia and across the country have faced increased scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years. Since 2023, 14 anti-DEI bills that target programs at colleges have been signed into law, according to a tally by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration requested that both VCU and George Mason University provide the syllabi for their diversity-themed courses to “provide greater clarity around what would be mandated because they were not available online,” Christian Martinez, a spokesperson for Youngkin, told CNN in an email.

Martinez said the governor’s office had heard “concerns from members of the Boards of Visitors, parents, students, alumni, and community members about proposed mandatory courses for undergraduate students.”

Youngkin has been a fierce critic of DEI. In 2022, the governor banned teaching “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” in K-12 schools. He later defended Martin Brown, his administration’s chief diversity, opportunity and inclusion officer, who faced calls for his resignation for declaring “DEI is dead,” according to CNN affiliate WTVR.

Universities become a culture war battleground

Mignonne Guy, an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at VCU, said the university’s president first tasked her with creating curriculum to teach students about racial literacy in 2019.

Guy said she established the Committee on Racial Equity faculty group and the Committee on Racial Equity Student Advisory Group to develop criteria for courses that would satisfy a requirement for all undergraduate students at VCU.

The criteria, according to the university website, included teaching about “the historical and current structures of racialized power and privilege, including whiteness,” and the “social institutions, policies, and practices that contribute to and enable racism.”

Guy said having this knowledge is key to addressing systemic racism, or the policies and practices that result in unfair treatment of some people based on their race.

Blocking the racial literacy course requirement sends a message to students that “this is not a priority,” Guy said.

“This was not to change students’ minds, it was to give them the opportunity to have a lens and interrogate our country in ways that we have not adequately done in the past,” Guy said. “And not just interrogate it but come up with solutions for a different way of life.”

Anesia Lawson, a VCU student and president of university’s NAACP chapter, said she was hopeful the board would support the requirement given all the hard work from the committee.

Lawson said she and other students attended the board meeting where the vote took place and were disappointed by the result.

“It was truly heartbreaking,” she said.

Lawson said she reviewed the racial literacy curriculum as it was being developed and appreciated that it would teach students how systemic racism intersected with sociology, the sciences, leadership, and law, which would benefit her as an aspiring civil rights lawyer.

“We really see things through different lenses and not educating people on race and racism is a disadvantage to our society and moving forward,” she said.

Melissa Broeckelman-Post, a professor and the Basic Course Director in the Department of Communication at George Mason, said the “Just Societies” courses were meant to “prepare our students for the contemporary world, and employers and accreditors clearly articulate the need to require these learning outcomes.”

“Faculty are deeply concerned that some [board] members are trying to interfere with curriculum processes that are clearly in the purview of the faculty,” she said in an email.

But where proponents of diversity equity and inclusion see courses like those offered at VCU and George Mason as essential to understanding racial dynamics in the United States, many lawmakers and critics who oppose DEI claim the classes amount to “indoctrination.”

Former U.S. Amb. Robert Pence, who was appointed to the GMU Board of Visitors by Gov. Youngkin, echoed these claims during a May 2 board meeting, adding he understands why students are passionate about diversity, but he takes issue with the courses being mandated.

“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.”

In his letter, Walsh emphasized that the courses in the “Just Societies” curriculum will be offered this coming year, and that the delay will only impact the school’s decision on whether they’re required.

“We have to consider that the concerns being raised by these constituencies suggest that our case to establish this requirement is not as clear and compelling to such communities as they are to our students and faculty,” Walsh wrote. “The depths of disagreement on this topic call for more work to bring opposing interests more into agreement.”

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