Diversity will not be a tagline or a boilerplate here

Nov. 18, 2015
President’s Forum on Diversity and Inclusion, University Student Commons

Good afternoon. Thank you for being here.

This is a critically important discussion about life at our university, and I’m grateful that all of you have brought your voice into this conversation. Your presence speaks volumes about the value our community places on diversity, inclusion and success — and doing everything we can to make those core values real and meaningful.

Let me begin by explaining why we’re here.

Last week, an engaged, concerned and thoughtful group of students began a conversation about their experiences as black students at VCU. This continued with a visit to my office, and I was very pleased to spend two hours talking with them and listening to their concerns.

The concerns they brought forward are important. They are concerns for all of us, because we all have the same vision for VCU: to be a university in which a student from any background can thrive. While we have made significant progress toward that goal, we recognize — now more than ever — that we still have much to do.

And that’s why we’re here today.

I convened this forum to shape and inform our next steps. I hope we will use this occasion to listen to each other and think about how we may work together more effectively to ensure that VCU is a place where anyone may feel welcome, safe, supported and able to succeed in the context of our mission.

VCU’s identity as a university has long been tied to its diversity. We are well-known as a place that’s welcoming and values the differences of its people. We are a place that asks all of our people to be leaders.

But we know we still have work to do.

Today, we continue our discussions toward that goal, building on our town hall last year and my meeting with these students last week.

And we begin by acknowledging that black lives matter. That’s an important part of this discussion. Our students have raised several questions, and these are important to discuss in light of the reality that racism still exists here and in America.

As a research university, our mission is to think about and act in ways that will benefit society. We address difficult issues head-on. It’s what we do. And so, it is important for us to be part of the national conversation about what it is like to be black in America, and to be a black student in America.

One of the issues most concerning to our students is a lack of black faculty who can serve as mentors and advisers, and who can diversify the depth of curriculum for all students. I agree. I have called repeatedly for more underrepresented faculty of color, and I will continue to do so as loudly as I can. And I will hold accountable my leadership team to ensure this happens. Accountability is essential for diversity to be real.

I appreciate the students who had the courage to bring these ideas forward. I am grateful that, as students, they are thoughtful about these issues. Though this is not their responsibility at VCU, to bring these ideas forward, but they are the leading voices for change. And it shows me the kind of students we have at VCU: students who are committed to a better university, and a more-just world. And the change they seek may not benefit them as students now, but it will be the legacy they leave for all of us.

Frankly, I think that what they have asked for isn’t enough. It highlights only some of the changes we need to make. Because if diversity and inclusion are truly values at VCU, then they must permeate every part of our university, from curriculum, to hiring, to health care, to the business decisions we make. Inclusion should matter everywhere. Not just among our students, not just among our faculty, but every place that is a part of VCU.

Diversity will not be a tagline or a boilerplate here. It will be an honest commitment that we have the courage to make and to defend. Despite what we’ve already achieved, there is greater capacity here to do what we need to do for all of our people.

My vision is a culture in which all of our people are embraced. We must do more to make that so. We must have a culture in which we truly understand each other and our unique experiences, and we must leverage those individual experiences as part of an educational environment that benefits us all.

As members of the same community, we must come to know each other better and trust each other more. And when those bonds of trust are broken or strained, we must work together to repair them. Because without trust, we cannot work toward common goals, or even have the difficult conversations that will move us forward.

We must be resolute and unrelenting in our commitment that anyone who comes to VCU can succeed at VCU. And if you’re part of the VCU community, you make that pledge. Our students deserve nothing less, and I will accept nothing less.

Our student’s voices are powerful, but they cannot be the only ones in this conversation. Because so many of you are here — and want your voice to be heard in a respectful and honest way — I am moved to believe that VCU has the chance to be the university that’s in the news for doing things right.

Thank you for inspiring me to believe that we can be the model university for diversity and inclusion in the 21st century. Our discussions are an important development for an institution with VCU’s opportunities. This is a timely conversation.

Thank you.