Northam to Address VMI

by James A. Bacon

“Northam heads to hostile terrain — VMI — to speak to 1,700 cadets.” That’s the headline on the Washington Post’s latest update on the hardball politics of racism and anti-racism at the Virginia Military Institute.

The headline is a stretch, even if you believe, as the Washington Post has insisted, the military academy is a hotbed of racism, sexism, and “fierce resistance to change” (arguably untrue) and where “many students and alumni” are furious at Governor Ralph Northam for slandering the institution (arguably very true).

But “hostile terrain?” The governor will not be walking into the lion’s den. The truth of the matter is that the new VMI leadership is in sync with Northam’s campaign to rid the military academy of  allegedly “systemic” racism and sexism. The Board of Visitors and Superintendent Cedric Wins have acceded to Northam’s agenda of purging Confederate-era symbols and embracing “anti-racism.” A telling sign of the new direction is the creation of a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracy, which, if DEI initiatives at other universities are any indication, will highlight racial slights and grievances and instruct cadets on the proper way to think about race.

Northam, an alumnus, asked to give the speech, which is scheduled for Monday night in VMI’s basketball arena. According to the correspondence I’m seeing from unhappy VI alumni, cadet attendance at Northam’s speech will be mandatory, but the event “will not be open to the public.” In other words, alumni not invited. It goes without saying that the cadets will be expected to behave with decorum. There won’t be any “Let’s Go Brandon” chants. No turning of backs on the governor. Northam is guaranteed a full house and an accommodating audience.

In other recent developments, the VMI administration has rejected an alumni request to honor the previous Superintendent, J.H. Binford Peay III, who has many admirers for raising the institute’s national profile, and whom Northam had pressured into resigning. Administrators also have squatted on an student newspaper, “The Cadet,” resurrected from a publication that ceased operation in 2016, backed by alumni. Cadets want to keep it independent but, backers say, the administration wants to keep it under the control of the administration or the alumni association.

The more interesting part of the Washington Post article was anticipating the conflict to come when Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin grabs hold of the VMI tar baby. Youngkin was vague about his intentions, but he signaled a willingness to reconsider Northam’s approach to the institute. In an interview with the Spirit of VMI political action committee, which endorsed Youngkin over rival Terry McAuliffe, he said he would convene a group of alumni and cadets to hear their views on “how best to reestablish the great reputation of VMI.” He would be willing, he said, to veto budgets that don’t provide VMI with adequate funding.

But will Youngkin be willing to play the same kind of political hardball that Northam and fellow Democrats used to impose their will on VMI? Could he stand up to the inevitable charges of racism?

At least one VMI alumnus is worried what Youngkin might do. Shah Rahman, described as “one of the college’s most vocal alumni in favor of the reforms,” extrapolates from Youngkin’s campaign against high-school “critical race theory” to the ongoing VMI controversy. Said Rahman: “He might think that all these changes at VMI need to be eliminated and that the schools needs to be brought to the way it was before.”

Time well tell. Be assured, resistance to any rollback will be fierce.