Wilder urges firing of state diversity official, VCU president

George Copeland Jr. | 5/11/2023, 6 p.m.
On Tuesday, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder called on Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin to replace Chief Diversity Officer Martin D. …
Former Governor Wilder Photo by Regina H. Boone

On Tuesday, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder called on Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin to replace Chief Diversity Officer Martin D. Brown over remarks declaring the state’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion “dead.”

He also called for a state investigation into a $75 million payment made by VCU Health to back out of a master lease for a failed redevelopment plan, and urged Virginia Commonwealth University’s Board of Visitors to fire VCU President Michael Rao over this decision.

“I’m here to represent concerns that have gone on a bit too long being unanswered,” Gov. Wilder said. “Along with other leaders like myself, we want and demand accountability, and answers on behalf of the people of the Commonwealth.”

“Both the issue of Brown and VCU show it is essential that we have leadership that hears and understands and represents the needs of the people.”

Gov. Wilder previously called for Mr. Brown’s firing last week, after the latter gave a speech at Virginia Military Institute during an employee training program in April declaring DEI a thing of the past, and not conducive with Gov. Youngkin’s vision for the office.

“Let’s take a moment right now to kill that cow. DEI is dead,” Mr. Brown said. “We’re not going to bring that cow up anymore. It’s dead. It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse, civility, treating — living the golden rule, right?”

VMI was the subject of an investigation into structural racism by the Northam administration, and was part of policy initiatives that led to the creation of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that Gov. Youngkin would later rename and Mr. Brown now leads.

Mr. Brown’s statements led to criticism from Virginia lawmakers and the state NAACP. Sen. Scott Surovell of Fairfax and House Minority Leader Don Scott Jr. of Portsmouth also have sent an inquiry to Attorney General Jason Miyares questioning whether Mr. Brown’s statements, and the changes he and Gov. Youngkin have made to the office, disregard the statute, obligations and process the role was created under.

Gov. Youngkin had previously defended Mr. Brown’s statement on Monday, saying that the push for diversity, equity and inclusion place focus on “equal outcomes for anyone at any cost” over equal opportunity, and had led to a situation where “excellence has been subordinated to equity.”

The Governor’s Office echoed that position in a statement that rebuffed Gov. Wilder’s urging, and said that “Gov. Youngkin will continue to advance equal opportunities — not equal outcomes — for all Virginians.”

“This is too important of an issue to succumb to those seeking to cancel Chief Brown for challenging the groupthink of the progressive left’s pursuit of equity at any cost.”

Gov. Wilder’s response to Gov. Youngkin’s earlier defense of Mr. Brown was blunt: “I don’t think Gov. Youngkin has the experience or the knowledge or the wherewithal to be considered anywhere near an expert relative to diversity, inclusion or racism in Virginia.”

Gov. Wilder’s issues with VCU, meanwhile, are just the latest in a long line of confrontations and criticisms of the college, where he serves as a professor and namesake for its School of Government and Public Affairs. Last year, he briefly sued Dr. Rao and three other VCU officials for $5 million over actions that he alleged damaged his reputation.

Regarding the recent payment made by VCU Health, Gov. Wilder stressed the need for transparency and outside examination by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission of the college’s decision. The $73 million payment had been given to a developer that had threatened to sue VCU Health over the failed redevelopment of the former site of the Public Safety Building in Downtown Richmond.

In a statement, VCU Associate Vice President Michael Porter defended the payment as an unfortunate but necessary choice made to avoid greater financial problems down the line for the university, and one that was made without relying on university funds or state revenue.

“We agree with Gov. Wilder that this financial outcome is disappointing,” Mr. Porter said. “But by late 2021, construction and other challenges made it simply impossible to build the original project.”