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Youngkin administration reviews race, DEI syllabi for VCU, George Mason courses


Youngkin administration reviews race, DEI syllabi for VCU, George Mason courses

Mar 28, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Nathaniel Cline
Youngkin administration reviews race, DEI syllabi for VCU, George Mason courses
(Getty Images / ferrantraite)

George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth Universities have submitted their syllabi for courses about diversity, equity, inclusion and race to Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera for review at the request of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a move that sparked frustration among some of the schools’ students and staff who said political influence has no place in classrooms. 

The administration previously reviewed and rescinded similar materials related to racism, discrimination and equity from Virginia Department of Education teacher training and classroom resources, following Youngkin’s 2022 executive order to eliminate “inherently divisive concepts” from being taught in Virginia public schools. 

Some saw the governor’s request to review VCU and Mason’s courses as a collegiate-level extension of his efforts to eliminate equity-centered curriculum within the state’s public education institutions.

In turn, Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez cited concerns the administration heard from college leaders, parents and students that required courses on equity, racism and diversity are actually “a thinly veiled attempt to incorporate the progressive left’s groupthink on Virginia’s students,” and said in a statement Virginia’s public institutions should be teaching students “how to think, not what to think and not advancing ideological conformity.”

Governor’s VCU, Mason course review requests reflect a pattern

From the start of the governor’s tenure, the administration has been hands-on in examining and revising educational content related to race and equity, which Youngkin branded “divisive” in his first executive order.

In that January 2022 mandate, the governor banned the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts,” including critical race theory, a college-level academic framework that explores the pervasiveness of racism in American society and how it shapes public policy.

Jillian Balow, former superintendent of public instruction, immediately followed the executive order by rescinding policies and programs implemented by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration that the Youngkin administration said “promote discriminatory and divisive concepts.”

Youngkin administration ends equity initiatives at the Virginia Department of Education

In 2023, Youngkin’s administration had a hand in making changes to the state’s history and social science standards, a process that some described as lacking transparency. Other groups said the initial draft of the revamped standard excluded or de-emphasized influential historical figures and events, like the New Deal and the Civil Rights era.

In the same year, the Youngkin administration also reviewed the first Advanced Placement course on African American studies developed by the College Board. The course was later added to the list of advanced placement classes that could be offered in Virginia. 

In Virginia, school boards will be the primary deciders on AP African American studies

How were the universities’ DEI curriculum created?

Mignonne Guy, then-chair of VCU’s Department of African American Studies, proposed a racial literacy general education requirement in 2019, according to the student-run publication The Commonwealth Times

In the years to follow, interest in the requirement grew among students and faculty members at VCU as racism-fueled incidents impacting underserved and vulnerable communities became more visible nationwide. Students and staff became more aware of the disproportionate effects the pandemic had on communities of color, repeated violent or fatal interactions between law enforcement and Black people, and increased attacks on Asian and Jewish people.

“After requests over several years from students that every person in the U.S. should be required to learn about race and racism, I inquired about this potential at a public meeting with [VCU President] Dr. [Michael] Rao,” wrote Guy in an email to the Mercury.

Later, she, along with Amy Rector, associate professor of anthropology and director of the School of World Studies, established the Committee on Racial Equity and a companion student advisory group with adjunct professor Marie Vergamini. 

“In the spirit of true student-centeredness, the latter group, CORE SAG, led the former,” Guy said. Both groups worked to outline what a required course on racial literacy would entail at the school.     

In 2021, the University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee adopted the “Introduction to Race Class,” according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch report, and instructors began to teach it in the spring of 2022, in hopes of making it a requirement in 2023.

Faced with a high demand of student needs, the university’s administration delayed implementing the educational requirement that year, citing staffing shortages and spacing issues. Some professors and students disagreed with that reasoning.

“We cannot, in good faith, require of students something they have no opportunity to meet,” wrote Fotis Sotiropoulos, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, in a July 31, 2023 letter to faculty and students. “The university needs more courses, and more course sections, to offer before this requirement can be fully implemented,” Sotiropouls wrote. 

As of Feb. 21, the university was still working to find available seats across all course sections to implement racial literacy as a requirement. 

At Mason, students and staff also collaborated in the creation of its Just Societies’ courses, a process that started in 2021, following students’ advocacy for an emphasis on diversity in the university’s core curriculum dating back to 2017.

The courses also follow the university’s commitment to “preparing students to act in a diverse, global world.”  

Last month, GMU Rector Horace Blackman designated Michael Meese, a Youngkin appointee on the Board of Visitors, and Bob Witeck, a Northam appointee, to collaborate with the university administration regarding board oversight of the Just Societies’ requirement and report back at the May 2 board meeting.

What do VCU and GMU’s DEI courses cover?

VCU’s racial literacy syllabi contain 11 courses approved by VCU’s faculty including the initial two courses that served as optional pilot offerings. Some of the courses focus on colorism, understanding race through literature, and race and racism in government and public affairs. 

One such course, Colorism in Society, is an online semester-long class that examines the history of colorism, which is a bias based on the lightness or darkness of skin tone, and helps students learn about the history of race and skin color in its connection to music, television and other media. 

In another class, Reading Race, students learn about race and racism through short stories, and other literary and cultural texts. “Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry,” written by Marua Mazziotti Gillan, is the required book for the course.

The course “Race and Racism in Government and Public Affairs” will help students understand racism’s influence in government, criminal justice, urban planning, public policy, emergency management and other sectors. This course was informed by teaching from VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. 

At Mason, DEI-related concepts will be taught through its Just Societies course. 

According to the Just Societies course webpage, after successfully completing the classes, students will have an understanding of terms like justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and how these concepts are applied in society and workplaces. 

Students who will also be able to engage meaningfully with peers about these issues and others raised in the course, and identify “obstacles to justice and equity, and strategies for addressing them.”

Professors and students push back against governor’s review requests

In a February phone call from Secretary Guidera, VCU was asked to provide its racial literacy curriculum, according to a March 1 letter from Sotiropouls and other media reports. However, the request left students and faculty concerned it was a “targeted attack” by the governor on teaching about race and racism, and sparked fears about the ramifications if the governor’s administration does not accept the coursework. 

Guidera had in January requested to review Mason’s Just Societies curriculum, which also caused concern within that university’s community. A main point of contention was that Board of Visitors members Meese and Witeck were given the power to oversee the implementation of the course at Mason.

Following a board meeting, an online petition created by Mason’s branch of the American Association for University Professors urged the university community to support Mason faculty in setting the curriculum and evaluating research value, instead of allowing the governor’s appointed Board of Visitors to do so.

Instructors believed if the governor has control over who helps make decisions in colleges and universities, the office would also have control over what is taught.

“If Mason — the largest public university in the commonwealth — is taken over by political appointees who wish to interfere with our curriculum and promotion and tenure outcomes, we will serve as a road-map for the denigration of the rest of Virginia’s public colleges and universities,” the petition stated.

It’s unclear what will happen after the Youngkin administration’s review of each university’s course. In the meantime, it appears the schools will move forward with their implementation plans. VCU’s goal, according to a March 1 letter Sotiropoulos sent to Guidera, is to eventually offer 17 DEI-related courses to students.

“VCU’s faculty is creating a breadth of offerings that promote intellectual diversity and foster intellectual inquiry through a pedagogy that prioritizes, and benefits from, the exchange of ideas from many viewpoints,” Sotiropoulos wrote.