After cadets allege racism in news reports, state orders review of Virginia Military Institute’s culture

After cadets allege racism in news reports, state orders review of Virginia Military Institute’s culture

The state’s top leaders are ordering a review of what they say is the “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism at the Virginia Military Institute,” following news reports detailing allegations by Black students and alumni.

Writing that the school’s values of honor, sacrifice, dignity and service “do not extend to all students,” the letter from state officials to VMI’s governing Board of Visitors cites reports of “vicious attacks on social media,” a sophomore threatening to lynch a fellow underclassman and a professor fondly reminiscing over her family’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan.

It further claims the state-run military college in Lexington continues to embrace the Confederacy, as well as “an inaccurate and dangerous ‘Lost Cause’ version of Virginia’s history.” The “Lost Cause” ideology asserts the Southern war effort was heroic and that states’ rights, not slavery, was the Confederacy’s principal cause, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“It is long past time to consign these relics to the dustbin of history,” the letter says. “This culture is unacceptable for any Virginia institution in the 21st century, especially one funded by taxpayers.”

Monday’s letter is signed by, among others, Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, state Senate President Louise Lucas, Attorney General Mark Herring and Delegate Lamont Bagby, chairman of the state Legislature’s Black caucus.

Board of Visitors President John William Boland responded Tuesday, promising cooperation, candor and transparency. The board welcomes the state review, which Boland is confident will show the school responded appropriately to the allegations, he wrote.

“Virtually all colleges in the 50 states can point to inappropriate behavior by their students or faculty members. VMI is not immune. However, systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true,” Boland’s letter said.

‘It’s unacceptable anywhere’

Internal action is no longer sufficient to assure diversity and equity at the school, state leaders told the Board of Visitors in announcing a third-party, nonpartisan review of VMI’s “culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures.”

Preliminary results are due by year’s end, the letter says, with an eye toward providing state lawmakers with information for any needed corrective legislation.

Herring called the reports of racism “disgusting” in a tweet Monday and said, “It’s unacceptable anywhere, especially at a public school, and not who we are as a Commonwealth.”

Delegate Mark Levine called for immediate action to stop “the culture of racism and oppression” at VMI, either via legislative action or the school’s leadership.

“Shape up, VMI. Or else,” he tweeted.

CNN has not been able to confirm the allegations referenced in the letter, but the correspondence was sent after The Roanoke Times in June and The Washington Post earlier this month reported numerous allegations that Black students and graduates have leveled against the school.

In his letter, Boland said all allegations of discrimination are thoroughly investigated and, when necessary, “appropriate action was meted out in a timely fashion.”

He added, “These incidents were perpetrated by few individuals and were in no way condoned by the Institute.”

‘All these brave, honorable men were flawed’

Former cadets described to the Roanoke paper White cadets’ overt racism, being forced to re-enact a Civil War battle in which VMI cadets took part and the now-abandoned practice of requiring first-year students to salute a statue of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a former VMI professor, Confederate general and slaveholder.

A recent graduate this summer launched a petition urging the institute to tear down the Jackson statue. It gained about 1,500 signatures. A competing petition — calling for the defense of “VMI’s sacred heritage” and a return to the “tradition” of forcing students to salute the Jackson statue — garnered more than three times that number of signatures.

“All these brave, honorable men were flawed, just like every cadet that marches through the hallowed arches of the Institute,” the latter petition said, mentioning George Washington. “Yet, despite their flaws, they contributed greatly to the heritage of not just the school, but also America. They are rightly honored for their noble deeds.”

The Washington Post story outlines numerous student and alumni allegations mentioned in the state leaders’ letter, as well as a 2017 incident in which White cadets dressed up in boxes, representing the southern border wall, bearing a slur against Mexicans.

“I wake up every day wondering, ‘Why am I still here?'” a 20-year-old Black senior, William Bunton, told the newspaper.

Boland cited the Post’s reporting specifically in his Tuesday response to state leaders, saying several of the incidents are many years old and “had more to do with an individual’s lapse of judgment than they do with the culture of the Institute.”

‘The future will look much different’

Last year, VMI counted 102 Black students among its enrollment of 1,698 — about 6% of the student body, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. More than 1,300 students were White.

The state provided $19.3 million in general funds for the 2020-2021 school year, VMI’s superintendent, Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, wrote in a May letter to the Board of Visitors.

Virginia’s chief diversity officer and secretary of education will meet with the Board of Visitors at least three times this year to discuss campus culture, implementing a diversity plan and “funding implications,” Monday’s letter said.

While the state leaders support VMI’s mission, they wrote, the latest allegations suggest school leaders are not moving quickly enough to demonstrate the commitment to diversity that the nation expects from its institutions.

“We are committed to the sustainability of the Virginia Military Institute and its mission of educating citizen soldiers, but the future will look much different from the past,” the letter says.

Boland closed his response by saying that VMI administrators were already reviewing the school’s traditions, ceremonies and culture, among other aspects of campus life, and the Board of Visitors endorsed last month “a path toward ensuring an Institute free from racism and discrimination.”

“Current events have likely caused everyone to reflect upon our understanding and exposure to racism and discrimination. The Institute is no different,” the board president wrote. “We have spent countless hours seeking the input of a diverse group including of cadets, faculty, staff, alumni, and community leaders. The result was a vision and plan regarding a way forward to ensure equal treatment for all of our cadets.”

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