An independent investigation of an offensive photo in the 1984 EVMS student yearbook was unable to determine the identity of the individuals in the photo. The photo pictures two individuals, one dressed in blackface and the other in a white robe and hood. The image appeared on the yearbook page of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has denied appearing in the photo or having any knowledge of how it ended up on his yearbook page.
The report found no one “with first-hand knowledge of an actual mistake on any page, including any personal page, within the 1984 yearbook” and no evidence that the photo was placed in error. The report also identified 10 photographs depicting individuals in blackface based on the law firm’s review of all EVMS yearbooks.
Richard V. Homan, MD, President and Provost of EVMS and Dean of the School of Medicine, underscored the importance of the investigation. “To maintain the public’s trust and ensure an independent and objective assessment of the past,” he said, “we knew we needed outside assistance.”
Within 48 hours of the offensive photo appearing online on Feb. 1, EVMS hired McGuireWoods to conduct the investigation. The law firm’s charge was to examine the past culture and yearbook production processes. The results of the independent and objective four-month probe — conducted by the law firm McGuireWoods at the request of EVMS — were announced at a news conference held May 22, 2019, at EVMS.
“We thank EVMS for its cooperation and responsiveness during the investigation,” said Richard Cullen, who led the investigation. “EVMS ensured McGuireWoods had unfettered access to EVMS documents and members of the EVMS community. At no time was our inquiry restricted by EVMS, and the findings and conclusions contained in the report are our own.”
Dr. Homan acknowledged that publication of the photos was a “failure of administrative oversight on the part of EVMS.
“Their publication was hurtful, particularly to the African-American community and to our campus community,” Dr. Homan said. “It should never have happened.”
News of the photo on the governor’s page triggered a review of yearbooks at other schools across the country that turned up hundreds of offensive photos. The scope of the problem is indicative of the unconscious and conscious bias and racism that continue to exist, Dr. Homan said
“Unless we face this fact head on, this bias and racism will not abate,” he said. “Uncomfortable silence only perpetuates these problems. We must engage in direct conversations, even if they are uncomfortable, even if they are difficult. Notwithstanding, talking is not enough.”
Dr. Homan has apologized publicly for the photo and other inappropriate images in the yearbook, but he emphasized that the photos do not reflect the school’s culture.
“Our work toward a more equitable and inclusive campus is not, and has not been, reactionary,” Dr. Homan said. “It has been a focus since 2013 and will continue to be an area of high priority for us for years to come. Our faculty, staff, residents and students have been working diligently to enhance diversity in all we do, and I applaud them for their efforts.”
Similar recognition of the school’s diversity strides came earlier this year when the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education selected EVMS to receive the organization’s Institutional Excellence Award. The award is given annually to a single institution to celebrate the school’s progress in sustaining innovative diversity efforts on campus.
Immediately after the disclosure of the offensive photos, Dr. Homan engaged local businessman Gilbert Bland to form a Community Advisory Board for Diversity and Inclusion (CABDI). The advisory board will focus on the current culture at EVMS and make recommendations for the future. The CABDI has engaged an outside consultant to assist the group and expects to complete its report this fall. Dr. Homan has committed to make that report public, too.
Dr. Homan also has launched a focused planning process that includes nearly 100 representatives from across campus. The goal is to develop strategies for improving diversity, equity and inclusion across campus. The plan will be completed by June 30.
“We can’t change the past but we can refuse to be defined by it,” Dr. Homan added. “We can reflect critically on our past and commit to learning everything we can from it. Today we take another step in learning those lessons.”