By: Caitlyn Freeman, Editor in Chief
Towson University speech-language pathology professors on Wednesday asked officials to walk back a decision to dedicate the Van Bokkelen Hall auditorium to Richard Vatz, a longtime professor who advised student groups that have espoused white nationalism and bigotry.
Twenty faculty members in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology signed onto a letter to President Kim Schatzel, Vice President for University Advancement Brian DeFlippis and other administrators. The professors are requesting officials not go through with the naming less than 48 hours before the auditorium’s dedication ceremony Friday morning.
The faculty members are taking issue with naming the auditorium for a professor who has continually served as faculty adviser to right-wing student organizations accused of racism.
Vatz is a faculty member in the Department of Instructional Leadership & Professional Development. He came under fire in October for his decision to continue sponsoring Towson’s chapter of Turning Point USA, despite leaked messages showing members of the far-right group using homophobic, racial and ableist slurs.
He told The Towerlight he continues to advise the chapter because members expressed remorse and assured him the bigotry would not continue.
Vatz in 2012 also sponsored Towson’s defunct chapter of Youth for Western Civilization, a far-right student group. The chapter, started by Towson alumnus Matthew Heimbach, sparked controversy by chalking “white pride” on sidewalks across campus, which led to Vatz resigning as adviser.
Once the group dissolved, Heimbach started a White Student Union, which was not affiliated with the university.
The faculty members said they are concerned about the message honoring Vatz sends to marginalized students and instructors.
“In our opinion, honoring Dr. Vatz with this renaming will convey to marginalized students and staff that their safety is less important than the rights of bigots to express their opinions on campus without consequence,” the letter reads.
Vatz has taught classes in the auditorium for most of his 48-year tenure.
The decision to dedicate the auditorium to Vatz, who plans to retire in January, was made five years ago in honor of his long history of donating to the university, The Baltimore Banner reported.
One of Vatz’s gifts came with a request to put his name on the auditorium, a university spokesperson told The Towerlight.
The speech and audiology department said, however, Vatz’s history of club sponsorship outweighs his financial contributions to the university.
“We are deeply concerned about the effect of enshrining the legacy of a professor who served as the faculty sponsor for [YWC] and continues to serve as the faculty sponsor for Turning Point USA,” the letter reads. “Both student groups have supported racist, homophobic, and ableist beliefs on campus.”
Vatz said in an email Wednesday that he detests bigotry of any kind and is a frequent donor to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights activist group, and the United Negro College Fund, an organization that provides scholarships to Black students. Vatz said he a frequently donates to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, another scholarship organizations.
The Towerlight contacted those organizations but could not independently confirm Vatz’s contributions by publication Wednesday.
Vatz said none of the faculty members who signed the letter contacted him regarding Turning Point before sending it, which, he said is “a basic ethical requirement – to question a principal — of those taking serious positions on public policy.”
Other faculty members and groups have come out against Vatz’s continued support of Turning Point, as well as the auditorium naming.
In October, Vatz’s coworkers in the Instructional Leadership & Professional Development Department denounced his affiliation with Turning Point and his past association with Heimbach.
This month, several members of Towson’s Student Government Association, Academic Senate and Graduate Student Association condemned the naming.
In a joint statement, the groups called on the university to amend its policy for dedicating buildings and academic programs.
The policy says that typically, representatives from the Academic Senate, Staff Senate and SGA must be involved in the process with facility dedications by serving on the naming committees . However, the policy does not consider a classroom a facility. Faculty want classrooms added into the policy.
A university spokesperson said agreements to name classrooms allow institution officials and the Towson University Foundation to “remove or modify a naming should the namesake be found to have done anything illegal or unethical.”
The university did not answer questions on the department’s request by publication Wednesday.
Outside of his club sponsorship, Vatz is known locally for his conservative advocacy and commentary in local media. He has authored several books.
Vatz was the longest-serving member of the university’s Academic Senate and a recipient of the 2004 President’s Award for Distinguished Service, according to his faculty biography.
Jake Shindel contributed to this story.