Dissident Alumni Open a New Front in the Higher-Ed Culture Wars

by James A. Bacon

A Saturday meeting of the VMI Alumni Association, convened to elect a new board of directors, broke up in acrimony and confusion. In a series of votes, dissident alumni voted to remove the existing board and replace it with a hybrid slate comprised of some old board members and some new. But association President Sam Stocks declared the votes in violation of the association’s bylaws, and the meeting concluded with no new board being chosen.

The fracas reflects deep divisions within the Virginia Military Institute alumni community since The Washington Post, former Governor Ralph Northam, and the Northam-instigated Barnes & Thornburg report declared VMI guilty of “systemic racism.” The Northam-anointed superintendent, Cedric Wins, is implementing recommendations of the report by building up Diversity, Equity & Inclusion programs that some traditionalist alumni fear are antithetical to the hallowed Rat Line and Honor Code. Dissident alumni perceive that the VMI Alumni Association has sided with Wins in the ongoing controversies and has not been transparent in its activities.

The aborted Saturday election has significance beyond VMI. Dissident alumni groups — including The Jefferson Council at the University of Virginia and the General’s Redoubt at Washington & Lee University here in Virginia — are organizing around the country. There is a widespread sentiment that established alumni associations have been captured by university administrations, function mainly as fund-raising arms for their institutions, and, as self-perpetuating cliques, are unresponsive to the concerns of conservative alumni.

The effort by dissident VMI alumni to gain control of the VMI alumni association represents a new front in the campus culture wars. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that conservative alumni have ever tried to take control of an association. And, in my estimation, it won’t be the last.

Conservative alumni cite numerous reasons for their unhappiness with the VMI Alumni Association, which with the VMI Foundation and Keydet Club comprise the VMI Alumni Agencies. Bob Morris, an alumni activist who backs an independent student newspaper, The Cadet, and has filed a lawsuit against VMI over its DEI procurement, told Bacon’s Rebellion that the association has not been fully open about its financial support for VMI. Contributions by VMI alumni, much of it in the form of scholarships, comprise a significant portion of the Institute’s budget. “Everybody started complaining about the lack of transparency on the fiscal stuff,” he said.

In what Morris calls a spontaneous process, alumni began discussing the upcoming alumni association meeting that would select a new board. The association wasn’t publicizing the date, and for a long time no one knew when it would be. But the association finally posted a notice in The Lexington Gazette, as required by its bylaws, and Thom Brashears, chief operating officer of the alumni association, briefly mentioned the meeting in a weekly update.

There was no itemization of topics to be discussed at the annual meeting, and no publication of the board members proposed to be elected, says Morris. “Folks got together and said this was unacceptable. They came up with a new slate.” The alternate board included some existing board members known to favor transparency as well as some outsiders. “This wasn’t personal. It wasn’t against anyone,” says Morris. “It was against [the board’s] actions.”

Will Moore, a Spotsylvania attorney, was recruited to speak for the dissident alumni. Morris is vague about who organized the alternate slate of directors and enlisted Moore. When contacted by Bacon’s Rebellion, Moore declined to comment about his role in the Saturday events.

By Morris’ count, 82 to 84 dissidents showed up at the meeting in Lexington.

Alumni came from all over Virginia and from as far away as Denver, Tucson, Dallas and Florida, says Matt Daniel, chairman of the Spirit of VMI, a PAC formed by VMI alumni to support traditional VMI values. “It came together organically. It was amazing,” he says. People were mainly concerned about the lack of transparency, he adds. No one could find out who was on the association-selected board slate, and no one could find a copy of the association bylaws online.

He thinks that the alumni association expected a routine meeting, and officials were not prepared for the large showing, Daniel says. Aside from the dissidents, there were only a couple of dozen other alumni in attendance.

Moore, the attorney representing the dissident alumni, presented a proposal to remove the existing board and replace it with a hybrid slate, recalls Morris. Stocks, the alumni association president, said they’d been ambushed. He complained he didn’t know who was on the alternate slate.

Despite the disagreements, a vote unfolded. The first round was a voice vote on the association-selected slate. It was overwhelmingly voted down. Then a hand count was called for, and the slate was voted down again. Once that was settled, a voice vote ensued to elect the new slate. The voice vote was overwhelmingly positive, says Morris. No nays were expressed.

In Morris’ telling, Stocks conferred with the association’s lawyer and then proclaimed that the previous motion was out of order and would not be recorded in the minutes. In Stocks’ reading of the bylaws, replacing a member of the board can occur only in a special session, which only he could convene. A big argument ensued. No, said the dissidents, the bylaws said that the association president  may call a special meeting and may take out a sitting member, but the bylaws allowed for removing board members at other times and places.

After more conferrals with attorneys, Stocks said he would schedule a special session to give all 25,000 alumni an opportunity to participate, and he called the meeting over.

I asked Stocks for his version of what transpired during the meeting. He issued the following statement through the alumni association:

The VMI Alumni Association led by its Board of Directors, made up of alumni volunteers, met over the weekend to conduct the business of the VMI Alumni in electing the next class of board members. While it is not our practice to discuss business conducted during our meetings beyond our alumni ranks, all meetings are conducted in accordance with our bylaws and under guidance of legal counsel.

The Board of Directors serves all alumni, and it is unfortunate that the concerns of this group were not brought forward to the Board in advance of the meeting. Had this courtesy been extended, a more productive meeting may have occurred for all involved.

Sam Stocks
President, VMI Alumni Association

Dissident alumni were irate: They interpreted Stock’s move as changing the rules in the middle of the game. The dissident alumni were prepared for the annual meeting, the association wasn’t, and when the outcome was not to the association’s liking, they ginned up an excuse to violate its own bylaws.

Carmen Villani had driven up from Texas to attend the hearing. He questions whether Stocks followed Roberts Rules of Order and disputes his interpretation of the bylaws. The behavior was consistent with the association’s “censorship and controlling of the narrative” over issues roiling VMI, he says. As an example, he says that the association refused to allow him to share a PowerPoint presentation with other class agents on how VMI needs to change direction. “They’ve created this situation.”

Sal Vitale participated in the meeting by Zoom. He was irked that Stocks muted his Zoom so he could not speak. Citing the 80+ alumni who made the trip to Lexington, he said, “My guess is the AA (alumni association) hope these same folks will not make the trip again and now the AA will have time to gather people to support their slate.”

It’s not clear what the next move is for the dissident alumni. One possibility is challenging the cancellation of the election in court. If there is no judicial resolution to the dispute, both sides likely will mobilize backers for a follow-up election — a contest that favors the alumni association, which has contact information for the entire alumni base, while the dissidents do not.

Whatever happens, older, conservative alumni are likely to feel more alienated than ever from the association. As Villani says in an email, “People are starting to weigh whether it is worth fighting the regime and instead PAUSE contribution until the climate changes.”

Full disclosure: James A. Bacon serves on the board of The Jefferson Council.