The VMI Questionnaire: Honest Inquiry or Stacked Deck?

by James A. Bacon

As part of its “equity audit” at the Virginia Military Institute, the Barnes & Thornburg law firm is conducting a survey of VMI cadets, alumni, professors and staff to gauge perceptions of racism at the military academy. The stated goal is to “better understand the environment and culture of VMI as an institution.”

But many VMI alumni are wondering if the real purpose is to generate data to support a predetermined conclusion: that VMI is a hotbed of racism. As part of its contract with the Northam administration, Barnes & Thornburg will issue recommendations to address the investigation’s findings. Not only are traditions surrounding the academy’s controversial Confederate heritage at stake, but so, too, are such core VMI institutions as the adversarial rat line and the single-sanction honor code.

A copy of the questionnaire was dropped on my doorstep late one night last week, and I have been examining it closely since then. Having had some experience years ago as publisher of Virginia Business magazine in composing readership surveys, I know how important it is to word questions carefully. After reviewing the VMI racism survey, I can see why alumni are alarmed. Given the way the questionnaire was constructed, the investigators could well find data to support whatever conclusions it wants.

Barnes & Thornburg is scheduled to issue a final report in June. To maintain credibility, the report needs to release the entire survey result, including cross-tabs. Outsiders need to be allowed to access the data to verify the investigators’ conclusions.

Here follow the flaws and limitations that struck me. Professional survey designers no doubt could find others.

Vocabulary. The survey contains a loaded term that has specific meaning to adherents of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which asserts that racism is endemic in American society. One question opens with this phrase: “Recent measures taken by VMI leadership to address issues of race and equity…” To most Americans, “equity” means something like “fairness” or “equal treatment.” In CRT-speak, the term amounts to “equality of outcome.” The use of this vocabulary is a clear tip-off of the investigators’ ideological leanings.

Sloppy wording. Several questions lend themselves to misinterpretation that will render any responses suspect. For example, the questionnaire asks if respondents support or oppose “reforming the Honor Court” system. The Honor Code has come under attack from The Washington Post for, among other features, its single sanction of expulsion and its drumming-out ceremony. Traditionalists might support “reform” of the Honor Code, but not for reasons cited by the Post. Some criticize the administration’s recent decision to cease announcing the name of honor offenders during drumming out ceremonies. Some would like to restore sanctions, not loosen them.

Hearsay. While the survey asks respondents if they have personally experienced racism or witnessed racism, it also asks if they have “heard” reports of racism. This is hearsay. Allegations of racism might provide leads for Barnes & Thornburg to investigate but are worthless as evidence.

Speculation. One question asks if “VMI leaders genuinely care about increasing the demographic diversity of the Institute.” Another asks respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, “VMI faculty care about getting the views and perspective of all types of cadets.” How would students or alumni know what VMI leaders care about, or whether that care is genuine? Mind reading is not a class taught at VMI.

Imprecise definitions. The questionnaire asks respondents if they have been “sexually assaulted” at VMI without providing a definition of what constitutes a sexual assault. As commonly used in other campus surveys, “sexual assault” can range from offenses that anyone would characterize as an assault, such as rape or sodomy, to unwanted touching. Respondents are, in effect, invited to supply their own definitions.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. One question asks if VMI cadets “socialize and hang out in groups that are racially integrated.” The first flaw in this question is imprecision. Respondents are asked to agree or disagree. How do they answer if, as is entirely likely, African-American cadets sometimes hang out in integrated groups and sometimes cluster with themselves? Whatever the answer, it potentially can be used against VMI. If cadets do not hang out in integrated groups, that can be used as evidence of hostility and discrimination.  If they do hang out in integrated groups, that can be cited as evidence that they are not given “safe” spaces where African-Americans can self-segregate.

Irrelevant questions. The survey asks respondents about background and beliefs that have no bearing on racism, sexism or bias at VMI. Examples:

“When it comes to a person’s ability to get ahead in our country these days, being white…. helps a lot, helps a little, neither helps nor hurts.”

Race relations in the U.S. are “generally bad” — agree or disagree.

Did you grow up in a military family? Do you consider yourself a religious person? Would your describe your political beliefs as liberal or conservative?

What possible light would answers to these questions shed? Is there a built-in assumption that conservatives, religious people, or those who don’t accept the premise of white privilege are more likely to deny the existence of racism at VMI?

Multiple formulations of same question. The survey asks about perceptions of racism in a dozen different ways. For example, one question asks readers to agree or disagree with the statement, “People of color have to do more than others to prove they belong at VMI,” and later to answer this question: “It is harder for people of color to succeed at VMI than it is for white people?”

Does diversity make the Institute stronger? Do VMI leaders care about increasing demographic diversity? Do white cadets disproportionately attain positions of leadership? Is the VMI campus welcoming to all types of people? Do people of color have to do more than others to prove they belong? Do cadets hang out in racially integrated groups? … And that gets us only halfway through the survey. Inevitably, responses will vary from question to question.

Question not asked. In its interim report, Barnes & Thornburg acknowledged an issue that would complicate any analysis of racist sentiment at VMI. Athletes enjoy exemptions from some of the arduous aspects of life as a cadet, such as drills, parades and inspections. Stated the report:

One source of tension among the cadets is perhaps not a direct issue of race, but appears to be intertwined with race: the divide between those cadets who participate in NCAA athletics and those who do not. While some alumni observed that “every cadet is an athlete,” alumni and current cadets often refer to this divide as a clear one between “athletes” and “cadets.” VMI’s student body is roughly 6% African-American. However, roughly 60% of African-American cadets are athletes.

Disentangling racism and resentment of athletes should be one of the central issues addressed in the investigation. But the survey ignores it for the most part, asking only if honor court decisions are influenced by a cadet’s athletic status, and whether cadet athletes are discriminated against. The survey makes no effort to ascertain the cadets’ attitudes toward athletes or how that resentment might be mistaken for racism. This is a monumental failure.

Perceptions versus realities. The most disturbing aspect of the questionnaire is the conceit that the perception of cadets, faculty, staff, and alumni tells us anything about underlying realities. We live in ideologically polarized times. People are smart enough to understand the political implications of their answers and adjust them accordingly. Furthermore, someone can perceive something to be true, but his or her belief does not necessarily make it so. For example, is the Honor Court biased against minorities? Members of the VMI community may form opinions based on highly publicized cases, or what they’ve read on newspaper articles, blogs, or social media. But their perceptions don’t tell us anything about actual guilt or innocence.

You can read the questionnaire here.

You can read my detailed notes on the questions here.

While one should not pre-judge how Barnes & Thornburg will treat the data, it is abundantly clear that the potential exists for the investigators to select the responses that best support their conclusions and downplay the rest. It is fair to ask if the law firm is an honest broker in pursuit of the truth or if it has an agenda.

To answer those questions, it helps to consider the client, the Northam administration. Governor Ralph Northam pre-judged the findings when announcing his intent to conduct an investigation in the first place. Stated Northam and other elected officials in a letter to the VMI Board of Visitors:

Black cadets at VMI have long faced repeated instances of racism on campus, including horrifying new revelations of threats about lynching, vicious attacks on social media, and even a professor who spoke fondly of her family’s history in the Ku Klux Klan. … This culture is unacceptable for any Virginia institution in the 21st century, especially one funded by taxpayers.

The charges levied by The Washington Post were accepted as valid with no need to hear conflicting viewpoints.

Shortly after writing that letter, the Governor’s Office issued a Request for Proposal, the terms of which it dictated to the nominal issuer, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). The RFP outlined topics the survey should cover (these are RFP quotes, but my emphasis).

  • “What are the current cadets’ perceptions of VMI across all dimensions of diversity?
  • “What are the perceptions of VMI by alumni from underrepresented groups when they were cadets?
  • “What are the perceptions of VMI from underrepresented groups now?
  • “Do alumni from underrepresented groups report perceptions of student achievement access to success after graduation?
  • “Do cadets of color perceive the policies, traditions, and culture of VMI to be racially insensitive?”

The RFP gives Barnes & Thornburg its marching orders. Although the questionnaire was distributed to cadets, faculty, staff and alumni generally, investigators were ordered explicitly to measure the perceptions of “underrepresented groups.”

What about Barnes & Thornburg itself? How will the law firm, whose Washington office is handling the inquiry, interpret its mission? Does the firm see itself as an impartial finder of fact? Or do the investigators see themselves as champions of social justice?

In a letter to Northam and other elected officials seeking the contract, Barnes & Thornburg Partner Roscoe C. Howard, Jr., highlighted the firm’s “unique, national commitment to racial and social justice.” Likewise proclaiming the firm’s dedication to racial and social justice, the firm’s website states, “We at Barnes & Thornburg wholly denounce racism in any form and seek to play a part, in whatever way we can, to address the burdens the events in Minneapolis (the death of George Floyd) have brought and the larger social forces that led to them.”

Howard was the lead author of the Interim Report, submitted March 8, of the Special Investigation Team.

One more piece of evidence suggests that Barnes & Thornburg might be more interested in crafting a “narrative” of VMI racism than impartially investigating the allegations. The law firm hired a company, Themevision, to conduct the survey. (This is known only because questionnaires were returned back to a Themevision email box.) States the firm’s website (Themevision’s emphasis):

As social scientists, we’re trained to know what questions to ask and how to ask them to get meaningful answers.

But we’re not just social scientists; we’re lawyers and communications specialists, data analysts and graphic designers. So we don’t stop with learning the answers, we show you how to use the answers to win the case.

We design science-based research to gather data and insights about your case. Then translate our findings into the simple language of stories that stick and strategies that win— in the courtroom and the court of public opinion.

Bacon’s Rebellion reached out to the VMI Alumni Associations, but their spokesmen had no comment. Likewise, Barnes & Thornburg had no comment.

VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt said that Superintendent Cedric T. Wins has urged the full cooperation of the VMI community. The administration has turned over more than 50,000 pages of documents and has encouraged faculty and cadets to cooperate fully with the investigative team and in the survey. As for the questionnaire, Wyatt said only this: “We would expect any survey to adhere to academic standards and proper research design. Whether that’s the case with this survey or not, I can’t say.”

I asked Peter Blake, executive director of SCHEV, if the complete survey results, including crosstabs, would be made available to the public when the final report is issued.

“I do not know for certain the answer to that,” he said. “But most surveys, to the extent they get sufficient numbers of results, do have cross-tabs along the lines you mention. It really depends on the number of responses, which I hope will be high enough for such an analysis.”