VCU Circular Firing Squad: Nazis, Terrorists and Racists

Former Governor L. Douglas Wilder. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of crazy going on at Virginia Commonwealth University right now, and, not surprisingly, former Governor L. Douglas Wilder is in the center of it. Between the accusations of racism and alleged threats to physical safety, the controversy is a window into the demented rhetoric inside higher education today — everyone’s a racist or a Nazi — and, insofar as universities are incubators of rhetoric that spills into broader society, it is symptomatic of the fever that afflicts us all.

The story, as best I can reconstruct it from the account provided by Eric Kolenich at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, began when James M. Burke, a faculty member at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, sent an email Jan. 30 to Wilder, after whom the school is named, decrying his advisory role in Governor Glenn Younkin’s 2021 transition team.

Burke, judging by the contents of this email, does not think highly of Republicans. Indeed, he likens them to Nazis. He wrote:

Wow. What a shit show. It will be four years of disaster…. I am beyond disgusted and disappointed in anyone who could have missed the obvious. Welcome the Nazis. I have no respect for anyone who supported [Youngkin]…. Is this what you wanted, Doug? I can’t believe you fell for it. You fucked up badly…. Trust me these jerks will come after me for teaching history. They will come after my Black colleagues for saying what is true. I will not capitulate to these people. Someone has to stand up. Will you stand up with me?

Image credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Days later, in a message to his supervisor, Burke wrote that if Wilder “tries to make things worse, he will find himself in a bad place.”

Perceiving Burke’s words as “terrorist language” and a threat, Wilder School Dean Susan Gooden filed a court protective order against Burke. On Feb. 8, she notified Burke that his texts violated VCU’s code of conduct for employees and he was being fired for breach of contract.

But Burke has yet to leave, and Wilder blames VCU Provost Fotis Sotiropolous. “The dean of the school doesn’t have the authority to dismiss anyone if she happens to be Black and a female,” Wilder said, referring to Gooden. “Am I talking about racism? Yes I am.”

Wilder said Sotiropoulos and VCU lawyer Jake Belue had contacted human resources to “undo” the firing. Burke said he is negotiating with the university on a settlement to leave VCU.

At a Board of Visitors meeting Friday, Wilder laid bare the quarrels and called upon the the board to hold the administration accountable. Racism, he said, is “practiced and condoned here at the university. Those of you who know me know I don’t make those charges lightly.”

The Board took no action.

Let’s unpack this story piece by piece.

James M. Burke

Burke. Burke gives no outward sign of being a crazy person. View his photo. He looks like an ordinary middle-aged, White-guy middle manager. He teaches industrial psychology at the Wilder School and directs the Performance Management Group, which provides performance reviews for state and local government. Most recently, he co-led a review of “internal and external challenges” facing employees in 35 city agencies and departments for the City of Richmond.

But he is clearly unhinged, likely the result of living inside an academic cocoon/ information bubble disconnected from the real world. With his “welcome the Nazis” remark, he equated the Youngkin administration with the perpetrators of the Holocaust. On what grounds? Apparently, upon the paranoid belief that Youngkin will come after him and his Black colleagues for “teaching history” and teaching “what is true.” As he elaborated in an interview with Kolenich: “Four hundred three years of oppression of Black people in Virginia – I think we need to talk about that. I will defend that to the end.”

Burke was referring to the meme that Youngkin wants to suppress the teaching of the history of injustices against Blacks in Virginia and the United States. Though propagated by the media, that claim flies in the face of Youngkin’s public pronouncements and has zero corroborating evidence. (For details, refer to my innumerable columns on the subject.”)

Susan Gooden, dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, “an internationally recognized expert on social equity.”

Gooden. Burke’s profanity-laced email was undeniably intemperate. Perhaps there is more to Burke’s behavior not revealed in the RTD article that would lend credence to the idea that he constitutes a physical threat. But if he used “terrorist” language, there is no evidence of it in the email itself, in quotes to the RTD, or in any other evidence made available to the public. Burke’s saying that Wilder could “find himself in a bad place” could have any number of meanings, the most plausible of which is that the former Governor would find himself in bad political odor due to his consorting with Youngkin-ites and Nazis.

Based on the evidence available, I find it incomprehensible that Gooden would feel physically threatened, and bizarre that she would go so far as to obtain a court protective order. I know nothing of Gooden but what I read of her in her biography, which describes her as “an internationally recognized expert on social equity.” I have observed a tendency of leftist university and government officials to be exceedingly fearful for their physical safety, and Burke, for all his burnishing of left-wing credentials by criticizing Youngkin for his fascistic proclivities, is White, male, and, therefore, inherently a problem and potentially dangerous. Unless there are more substantial grounds for fearing that Burke might post a physical threat, it looks like Gooden wildly over-reacted.

Wilder. Wilder is a wonder. When most 91-year-olds are hobbling around on canes or wandering off from their dementia wards, Wilder seems as active as ever. Always a political maverick, he is also as opinionated as ever. There is something unseemly about a White assistant professor like Burke profanely haranguing the nation’s first Black governor on matters of race, and Wilder has every justification for being irked by Burke’s words.

But why hurl charges of racism? Although the VCU administration put Gooden’s firing of Burke on hold, the university is negotiating terms and conditions for his departure. VCU’s response is typically bureaucratic. Rules and procedures must be adhered to. Is that racist?

Wilder didn’t make his argument any clearer with this quote: “The dean of the school doesn’t have the authority to dismiss anyone if she happens to be Black and a female.”

What does that even mean? How does that apply to this case?

Wilder has had his dust-ups with the VCU administration before, including a 2018 incident in which he accused a previous dean of the school, John Accordino, of verbally abusing an administrative assistant, a White female. In that spat, Wilder sued the then-provost Gail Hackett and VCU President Michael Rao. If you are L. Douglas Wilder, the first Black governor ever elected in America, and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs is named after you, it does give you a certain amount of leverage in these kinds of controversies. The VCU administration just has to grin and bear it.

What a mess. Hurling around accusations of Nazism, terrorism, and racism is not becoming to VCU. Virginia’s public discourse is debased enough as it is. This squabble cheapens it even more.