Civil rights, free speech rights, and physical safety are core components of what should make up the learning conditions for all VCU students and the working conditions for all VCU workers. This week VCU Administration undermined these principles, putting student leadership at risk. This action is part of a larger pattern of structural neglect of student needs and interests that must be addressed.
UCW-VCU condemns the decision of President Rao to release a statement with criticism of tweets posted to the private account of student government president, Taylor Maloney. As president of a public university, Mr. Rao has a responsibility and legal obligation to avoid any conduct that could be understood as having a “chilling effect” targeting freedom of expression. In this case President Rao did not live up to this obligation.
While our university has a mandated responsibility to protect the freedom of speech of its students under any circumstances, President Rao’s statement was a particularly damaging choice in the context where Maloney is the target of threats from extremist groups, and where individual threats to the safety of this VCU student activist have credibly been made. In this context, President Rao’s words tacitly affirmed the ongoing attacks targeting Maloney online, which have been led by right-wing media outlets and escalated by white supremacists. Endangering a student leader in this manner is inexcusable in university governance.
President Rao’s haste to criticize a student activist stands in stark contrast to the university’s inaction in the wake of the death of a VCU student as the result of hazing. It is telling in the context of the VCU Administration’s silence following the police murder of VCU alumnus Marcus-David Peters. It is telling in context with the university’s failure to provide sufficient supports following the brutalization of student protestors at the hands of Richmond police in the summer of 2020. VCU’s Administration should rescind President Rao’s statement, and immediately begin work developing a policy that supports student activists who are subject to the violations of their rights and threats to their safety as a result of their activism or political leadership roles they take on at our university.
VCU educators work every day to give students the knowledge, critical thinking skills, and tools so that students can define their future and shape our collective future. President Rao’s statement is antithetical to that work. Our students must know and trust that their university supports fundamental freedoms like the right to free speech and protest. They should be able to expect support as they find their voice and take on injustice. Those are the learning conditions VCU Students deserve.