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Students discuss equity and racial justice during W&M's Road to Richmond event

Racial-justice, COVID-19 and higher-education concerns dominated conversations as William & Mary students lobbied Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and other elected state officials during the 2021 Road to Richmond event on Feb. 10, conducted “virtually” for the first time this year. Underpinning cautious optimism on addressing specific issues, however, was the reality of the toll exacted on the economy by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his opening comments, Northam suggested the commonwealth was “doing well” compared to other states regarding COVID-19, which he attributed to state residents following established guidelines. Still, 1.5 million Virginians filed for unemployment during the pandemic, food insecurity has increased to the point where 20 percent of residents “don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” and the prospect of forced evictions hangs over thousands of people, Northam admitted.

“We’ve been at this for almost a year,” he said. “ It’s been a long dark tunnel but I think we’re finally seeing the light at the end of that tunnel.”

W&M President Katherine A. Rowe opened the meeting by suggesting that the Virginia Council of Presidents, comprising the leaders of public universities and colleges, was united in proposing recommendations to the General Assembly to ensure their institutions have the resources to successfully navigate the pandemic.

“There’s a high alignment between higher education—what our goals are—and those of the governor and the General Assembly,” she said. They coalesce “around larger interest of recruiting and retaining incredible talent for the commonwealth.

“Looking ahead, multiple years out, you are that talent,” she told the students who were participating.

Rowe identified two additional requests specific to William & Mary. One involves securing funding for the fourth phase of the Integrated Science Center, which she called “crucial to our expansion of computer science and data science—the area of highest-spiking demand among William & Mary students.” The second seeks to create a “pipeline” for under-represented faculty and post-doctorate candidates to expand opportunities in data science and marine science, she said.

In addition to Northam, elected officials participating were delegates Mike Mullin (D-93rd), Jeff Bourne (D-71st) and Jay Jones (D-89th), along with senators Tommy Norment (R-3rd) and Monty Mason (D-1st).

In response to a question from Mia Tilman ’24 about economic inequality and the high cost of college, Mullin suggested that, in Virginia, the increase in the cost of higher education is  proportionate to the decrease in state funding.

“We shifted the cost from everyone to those who attend a college or university,” he said, relating that for him, a result has been that “my first son will be in college the same year I finish paying off my college. We’re not going to fix this until we put some money into it.”

The question of who pays was part of Norment’s response to a question from John Lesko ’21 referencing his research into regional transportation entities.

“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘I only see three or four people on a bus. How can that be profitable?’” Norment said. “I don’t look at it like that. I look at public transportation as delivering a very critical service. Either ridership has to pay or state government and local governments have to pony up the money.”

Aria Austin ‘21 questioned whether mental-health resources in K-12 schools were sufficient, given negative effects of the current pandemic. Bourne responded that cuts to education in response to the 2008 “great recession” resulted in a substantial increase in caseloads for counselors and had handicapped school divisions by placing a “support cap” on them. Efforts to reduce those caseloads, as well as freeing counselors from other support duties that had been placed upon them, were ongoing, Bourne said.

During the Road to Richmond session, Northam spoke at length about criminal-justice reform, including his support of efforts to automatically restore voting rights to former convicts and efforts to abolish Virginia’s death penalty, which he called “inequitable” in that the number of people on death row and the number of executions are “disproportionately weighted toward people of color.” Northam also addressed reform of marijuana laws, including “expungement” of records for those who “have criminal records because of marijuana.”

Later, responding to Jack Thomas ’22, who asked about the projected economic recovery in the commonwealth, Northam expressed optimism that Virginia was outperforming some of the more dire estimates espoused at the start of the pandemic. Going forward, Northam suggested, “I really think Americans are going to say, “We’ve been cooped up for so long. We want to get back to our lives. We want to travel again. We want to be together again.’ I think our economy will take off nicely … I think everyone wants to get back to that new normal.”

The event concluded with a panel of young alumni sharing stories about their favorite places at William & Mary and about how the university had prepared them for careers in public service. They also offered themselves as mentors to young people preparing to step from college into jobs as public-policy advocates.

This year, the alumni contact was especially important to students, who are focused on the impacts of the pandemic on their academic experience, according to W&M Director of Government Relations Colin Smolinsky, whose office organized the event.

”Since the pandemic has upended the typical methods of networking and the job search, students were eager to hear from young alums sharing their thoughts on how to navigate this new environment,” Smolinsky said.