Norfolk State University

Norfolk State University plans to establish the state’s first academic, nonpartisan think tank focused on African Americans and other residents of color, dubbed the Center for African American Public Policy.

And once it’s launched, they’re hoping Gov. Ralph Northam will help them mark the occasion.

Soji Akomolafe, chair of NSU’s political science department, said the university is in talks with Northam’s office for him to attend an event once the center opens in the fall.

“I can’t say what it’s about,” Akomolafe said, but hinted at a forum where people can openly discuss race and racist behavior.

“We don’t talk about race, we talk around race,” he said. “This is a conversation that we have never had.”

Northam’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of NSU’s College of Liberal Arts, envisions the Center for African American Public Policy as a clearinghouse for research already underway in several university departments, a place to conduct in-depth polling of communities of color and mediate difficult discussions about race and inequality that have been renewed since Northam’s blackface photo scandal.

“Other (historically black colleges and universities) have had pieces of this but this is the first time that a center of this kind has been initiated,” Newby-Alexander said.

It’s especially timely given Northam’s fumbling response to the discovery of a photo on his medical school yearbook page that shows one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam apologized for wearing blackface, then later said he wasn’t sure it was him.

Newby-Alexander said if the center had been established when that happened, NSU could have been a leader in the public discussion that has followed.

“We’re scholars, so we’re not going to get into any kind of political one-upmanship. That’s not our goal,” she said. “We deal with facts, issues, and this is about having a conversation not having an argument.”

“Let’s not focus on one political group versus another, this has to do with our culture. And so, all right, fine, these kinds of things happen, let’s start having the real conversations so we can stop what has been allowed.”

Akomolafe said the center will also advocate for policies and be a resource for lawmakers.

“We will be nonpartisan, unbiased — but that does not mean we’re not going to take positions,” he said. “We’re going to follow the facts no matter where it leads.”

Current university faculty members from several departments will move to the center and the university received $298,000 from the state to hire one additional person.

The money was part of $6.6 million included in this year’s budget amendments for several specific programs at state colleges, including a neuroscience initiative at George Mason University, a spaceflight initiative at Old Dominion University and money to help Virginia Military Institute with accreditation.

Akomolafe hopes the center will do more than just usher in new discussions about race. He thinks it could help repair NSU’s reputation, which took a hit in 2013 when it was warned by its accreditation agency that it was out of compliance with mostly administrative standards. In 2014, the historically black university was downgraded to being on probation.

The accreditation agency restored the school’s good standing in 2015.

“This center is an opportunity to prove, not just to Hampton Roads, but to Richmond and to the state of Virginia, that good things do happen at Norfolk State,” Akomolafe said.