RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Oct. 28, less than a day after Virginia Commonwealth University announced it was pausing its branded beer partnership with Hardywood Brewery, former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder published a scathing essay on his website criticizing the school’s President Michael Rao for his actions to reverse a policy previously put in place to stop the production and sale of any branded alcohol associated with the school.
In May, Rao instituted interim rules that would allow VCU to enter into contracts to produce, promote and sell branded beer for the first time since at least 2013.
According to Everett Carpenter, president of the VCU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the policy change that allows for VCU-branded beer was already rejected by an advisory committee consisting of faculty members that oversee university policy.
In a recent interview with 8News, Carpenter said that Rao’s administration had ignored the advisory committee’s concerns about allowing VCU’s branding to appear on alcoholic beverages. He cited underage drinking and alcohol-related tragedies as the main reasons for the committee’s rejection of a policy change.
The decision to reject VCU-branded beer had received unanimous support from the advisory committee, according to Wilder, who is celebrated across Virginia as the first elected African American governor in the United States.
“Rao has given NO reason for his action. It signals an abrupt deviation from the shared governance that VCU’s charter requires,” Wilder wrote in his essay published Friday.
Expressing his frustration, Wilder accused Rao of “behaving in an autocratic manner” in his essay, and called on the university’s Board of Visitors, whose members are appointed by the state’s governor, to review Rao’s actions and “restore shared governance” at the leadership level at VCU. Wilder also criticized Rao’s management of issues on campus, pointing to a decline in enrollment and the high turnover of Black faculty members.
VCU’s last-minute decision to halt its branded beer project, even after production was completed, comes as no surprise. Given recent events, the news of a VCU-branded beer was met with swift backlash from faculty, parents and others in the school community.
“Could university President Michael Rao have possibly chosen a more callous direction to generate negative publicity for VCU at a critical time like this? I don’t think so,” Wilder wrote.
In September, the university was ordered to pay nearly $1 million in settlement to the family of Adam Oakes, a former VCU freshman who died from alcohol poisoning after a frat party in February 2021. The Oakes family is currently working with VCU to develop a new set of guidelines for the school’s Greek system, with a particular emphasis on alcohol consumption. They hope the guidelines will serve as a way to encourage safer drinking practices among students.
To read Wilder’s full essay, visit here.