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Doug Wilder accuses VCU provost of racism for not firing employee

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Doug Wilder

In a message to his supervisor, the employee wrote that if former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder “tries to make things worse, he will find himself in a bad place.”

A Virginia Commonwealth University employee who called Republicans “Nazis” and criticized former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder remains on the university’s payroll because of racism in the university’s administration, Wilder said Friday.

In a sweeping allegation at the university's board of visitors meeting, Wilder, 91, stood behind a microphone and made public three months’ worth of employee quarrels.

In January, VCU employee Jim Burke sent a crude text message to Wilder criticizing Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to eliminate Critical Race Theory from schools and Wilder’s ties to the Republican candidate.

“Wow. What a s--- show. It will be four years of disaster,” Burke wrote. “I am so disappointed on anyone who thought he was a better choice. Pure stupidity.”

wilder text.jpg

In a January text message to former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a VCU employee wrote "Welcome the Nazis" in regard to the incoming Glenn Youngkin administration. "Trust me, these jerks will come after me for teaching history."

Burke was then director of the Performance Management Group within VCU's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, named for the nation's first elected Black governor.

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.”

The dean of the Wilder school, Susan Gooden, perceived Burke’s words as threats and “terroristic language.” She filed a court protective order against Burke and notified him he would be fired with cause.

Now, three months later, Burke is still an employee, and Wilder blames provost Fotis Sotiropoulos. Racism, the former governor said, was behind the decision to keep Burke on staff.

“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.”

The saga began the evening of Jan. 30 when Wilder received a text message from Burke. He’s currently employed on a one-year contract, according to the university.

“Welcome the Nazis,” he wrote. “I have no respect for anyone who supported him. TM may not have been great. I get that" he wrote, apparently referring to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee who lost to Youngkin. "But this???? WTF. Is this what you wanted, Doug?”

Copies of the text messages, which were typed into public documents, were shared with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Later in the message, he addressed teaching race, saying “these jerks will come after me for teaching history. They will come after my Black colleagues for saying what is true.”

Wilder, a Democrat who served as governor from 1990-94, did not endorse a candidate in last fall's election, but he criticized McAuliffe for trying to "leap frog" over three African American hopefuls who also sought the Democratic nomination for governor. During Youngkin's transition Wilder teamed with three former Republican governors to serve as advisers to the new governor.

In an interview, Burke said he disapproves of the Republican Party’s efforts to end the teaching of what they consider divisive concepts.

“Four hundred three years of oppression of Black people in Virginia – I think we need to talk about that,” Burke said in the interview. “I will defend that to the end.”

Wilder never responded to the Jan. 30 text message, he said.

Three days later, Burke sent a text to his supervisor, Robyn McDougle, and declined to apologize.

“I stand by what I said. I was right,” Burke wrote. “I will give into people like him no more. If he tries to make things worse, he will find himself in a bad place.”

The text also mentioned Gooden, the dean. “I hate putting Susan in a awkward place, but sometimes we need to stop dancing around narcissists and start to manage them. ... If he can dish it out, he has to learn how to take it and not go running to Susan.”

Gooden, the dean of the school, called Burke’s words “terroristic threats” that have the “clear intention to inflict pain,” according to copies of emails provided by Wilder's office. She filed a complaint to VCU police, saying she feared for her safety. If Burke couldn’t find Wilder, he could use Gooden as a target to release his frustrations, she said. And she requested a protective order against Burke in Richmond General District Court.

In an interview, Burke described his messages as ranting but not threatening. “I don’t ever think of hurting anybody ever,” he said. "I'm not a threat to anybody."

VCU’s threat assessment team met and determined Burke had made no specific physical threats to anyone. Richmond General District Court Judge L.B. Cann ruled on the protective order that Burke wasn’t an imminent threat to Gooden, Burke said.

Wilder also considered Burke's texts a threat. He contacted VCU police chief Jon Venuti, rector Ben Dendy and VCU president Michael Rao. Wilder wrote that Burke's words were "threatening action against me." On Friday, he said the texts violate VCU's code of conduct for employees. 

On Feb. 8, Gooden notified Burke he was being fired for breach of contract. But Burke remains employed by the school. Wilder said Sotiropoulos and head 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.

Wilder provided no evidence to show how Sotiropoulos’ actions were racist but added that it’s not typical for a provost to become involved with a school’s hiring or firing. That’s the purview of the dean.

Sotiropoulos declined to comment Friday, other than to say “I have the utmost respect for [former Gov. Wilder.]”

VCU president Michael Rao defended Sotiropoulos, calling him one of the best provosts Rao has ever worked with.

At Friday’s board meeting, Wilder said racism is “practiced and condoned here at the university. Those of you who know me know I don’t make those charges lightly.”

He called on the board to hold the administration responsible, but the body took no action on the matter Friday.

Burke has worked for VCU for nearly 27 years and had good relations with the university, he said. “I certainly regret that Governor Wilder spoke about HR matters in a public forum.”

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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