by James A. Bacon
Two stories about Virginia Commonwealth University were in the news today. A front-page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighted a forum in which African-American and Muslim students expressed how badly they are treated and how the university needs to make a greater commitment to “diversity.” The other, appearing in the email newsletter of Richmond BizSense, described how two members of VCU’s 2011 Final Four basketball team hope to launch a venture, Empower Card, that will allow purchasers to funnel a portion of their credit card purchases to worthy causes.
The contrast is highly illuminating.
About 500 people packed the VCU forum hosted by President Michael Rao and gave voice to a succession of gripes and grievances. “VCU has failed black students on many levels,” said Angelique Scott, a junior representing a group called Black VCU Speaks. “We are tired of hearing about old initiatives that have never been set into action.”
Hiba Ahmad, a sophomore from Fairfax, said Muslim students have become fearful in the wake of terrorist attacks and “a growing rhetoric of Islamophobia.” Students “who display their faith very visually” through their dress are concerned for their safety, she said.
There was a lot of talk about fears and perceptions, but no mention of anything tangible. Have minority VCU students been assaulted? No such incidents were reported. Has anyone been physically bullied? Again, no mention. Ahmad took objection to classroom discussions in which “hurtful” and “disrespectful” comments about Muslims are made and the failure of professors to back up the Muslims. Another student spoke about feeling “marginalized” when he discovered he wasn’t invited to a cookout at a professor’s home.
Poor, delicate flowers.
We don’t know how representative the views of these 500 students are, but Rao legitimized them by saying the university is trying to create a more welcoming environment. “Let’s just face it, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “The urgency is more serious than I think some might grasp.”
It is important to note however, that the wallowing-in-self-pity movement does not represent the views of all minority VCU students — just the noisiest ones. We hear a very different story from fledgling entrepreneurs D.J. Haley and Rob Brandenberg, two recently graduated members of VCU’s most celebrated basketball squad. Their idea is to use credit and debit cards as vehicles for businesses and consumers to donate money to participating not-for-profit causes.
Working with a company called Linkable Networks to provide the technology, Haley and Brandenburg have launched a website and are lining up businesses and charities to take part. The idea is that participating businesses would build their brand and customer loyalty by funneling 5% of the credit-card charge to select charities.
For now, reports BizSense, the company is in the very early stages. Haley, who works for a marketing advisory and data intelligence firm in Northern Virginia, and Brandenberg, who works for CornerstoneRPO, a corporate recruiting company in Richmond, are working part-time on the enterprise. Among other hurdles, they figure they need about $50,000 to get the venture off the ground. “We’re betting on the intent to do good works,” said Haley.
How was their experience at VCU? Here’s what Haley said: “We were fortunate to be exposed to great people and great principles,. The other thing that we’re working with is how intertwined we are with the VCU community. We’re confident we have the support we need to make this thing happen.”
I am awaiting the day when Rao holds a forum for ambitious, striving and upwardly mobile students like Haley and Brandenburg. I am guessing that he would get very different feedback. VCU faces a critical choice: Which constituency does it choose to empower — the whiners or the doers? If VCU wants any kind of future, it should cast its lot with the doers.