A special review board appointed by Board of Visitors President John Boland will study the recommendations contained in the Barnes & Thornburg investigation into racism and sexism at the Virginia Military Institute. The reviewers will report back to the Board of Visitors before its next meeting scheduled in September.
Among its 40 or so recommendations, Barnes & Thornburg, which was appointed by Governor Ralph Northam, says VMI needs to address racial equity by making high-level governance changes such as crafting a strategic plan around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and submitting quarterly reports on its progress to the General Assembly. Then it proceeds to itemize specific items the Institute needs to tackle.
The report admonishes VMI to set goals for recruiting and promoting minority and female faculty and staff, alter its athlete-oriented scholarship program to provide more scholarships for minority non-athletes, re-engineer its Honor Code, implement “sensitivity and bystander training,” and re-evaluate the Institute’s participation in Division I athletics. The report dives so deep into the weeds that it even recommends VMI change its policy on permissible hair styles.
In theory, VMI is free to accept or reject these recommendations — in the same way that a bank teller with a gun to his head is free to not tell the robber where the money is stashed. But the reality is that the Board must make substantial concessions or put itself at risk of political blowback in the General Assembly, which controls state appropriations to VMI and other public universities.
The issue here is bigger than VMI. Using the cudgel of racism and sexism at VMI, Governor Ralph Northam is setting a precedent that will allow him to dictate specific policies at any public college or university in Virginia.
In contrast to many states, Virginia has created a decentralized system of higher education. The system was set up to be insulated from the rough and tumble of partisan politics. Public universities are governed by independent Boards of Visitors. Governors can influence the composition of the boards by appointing new board members as old members rotate off, but they otherwise have refrained from involving themselves in decision-making. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) functions mainly as a coordinating, standards-setting and fact-gathering organization. The Council does not meddle in the decision-making of individual boards.
Many observers credit this decentralized system with creating perhaps the most vibrant, robust state system of higher education in the United States. Individual schools enjoy the flexibility to redefine themselves as they pursue new opportunities. Virginians can choose between a great diversity of institutional types — research universities, liberal arts institutions, large urban universities, small rural colleges, historically black universities — in which each university has its own distinctive flavor. With its martial traditions, emphasis on patriotism, and adversity-based leadership model, VMI is unique.
Governors intervene only rarely in university governance issues. The last time that I recall was a decade ago when University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas and her board allies forced the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan. Reluctantly dragged into the controversy, Governor Bob McDonnell used his good offices to urge reconciliation of the warring factions. He never tried to dictate outcomes.
The VMI case is very different. While Dragas-Sullivan controversy arose from internal differences over UVa’s vision for the future, the assault on VMI’s institutional prerogatives came from the outside. The Roanoke Times first wrote an article highlighting allegations of racial injustice at VMI but the article gained little traction. It was only when The Washington Post published its broadsides on the military academy, alleging the existence of “relentless racism,” that Northam reacted.
Prejudging VMI’s guilt and declaring himself “appalled” by the “systemic racism,” Northam ordered an “independent” investigation into the charges. The investigation may be “independent” in the sense that the investigators did not report to Northam via a bureaucratic chain of command, but it is not independent in any meaningful sense. The Governor’s Office laid out the investigation’s goals and methods in the Request for Proposal, and the Governor’s Office selected a law firm, Barnes & Thornburg, that was ideologically aligned in its pursuit of “racial justice.” It was a foregone conclusion that the Final Report would be highly critical of VMI.
The institutional changes demanded of VMI are likely unprecedented in the history of Virginia higher education. The intrusion of partisan politics — imposing a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion regime that is bitterly contested across Virginia — is likewise unprecedented.
Other Virginia higher-ed institutions should be forewarned. Northam has created a template for imposing his will on any public college or university. Drum up a handful of allegations, create a furor in the media, announce an investigation, ensure that the “independent” investigator stacks the deck, make “recommendations,” and threaten to withhold state funding. Today, with the state under Democratic control, the cause is “racial equity.” Tomorrow, if Republicans retake control, the cause could be anything else.