The VMI Story You Haven’t Heard

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Post and Northam administration have done a fine job of wrecking the reputation of the Virginia Military Institute. On the basis of a dozen anecdotes shorn from any context, the Post declared VMI guilty of “relentless racism” and elaborated upon the charge in more than 20 articles since. Declaring himself “appalled” by the Institute’s “systemic racism,” Governor Ralph Northam hired an outside firm to investigate racial discrimination at the military academy. The investigator, law firm Barnes & Thornburg (B&T), has produced preliminary and interim reports which, though refraining from drawing definitive conclusions, reinforced the association in the public mind between VMI and racism.

The VMI leadership has been caught in a delicate situation, unwilling to respond as forcefully and openly as it might for fear of antagonizing the Northam administration and provoking political retribution. But thanks to the letter of resignation from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) tendered by Thomas G. Slater, Jr., yesterday, along with supporting documentation, the public gets the fullest, clearest expression of VMI’s defense.

On March 22, 2021, Cedric T. Wins, then-interim superintendent of VMI, and John William Boland, president of the VMI Board of Visitors, wrote a letter to Marge Connelly, SCHEV board chair and Slater, vice chair. At the time, Slater was trying to set up a meeting in which Wins and Boland could talk to the Council about ensuring the accuracy of the final B&T report.

That letter did two things. First, it provided context missing from the Washington Post articles, the Governor’s public statements, and the B&T preliminary and interim reports showing what VMI had been doing before the investigation began. Second, it detailed the errors and omissions in the B&T report, thus documenting what VMI contends was a need to review and provide feedback before the final report is issued on or around June 1.

The following material has been extracted from that letter. (The topic heads are mine.)

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Significant measures taken in regard diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) “before any involvement by B&T”:

  • Released the “Five Pillars” plan for addressing and improving DEI issues.
  • Formed a DEI Committee to oversee and monitor all matters race and gender related.
  • Created a Diversity Dashboard to monitor admissions, graduation rates and hiring at all levels.
  • Formed a Ceremonies and Memorials Naming and Review Committee to review and make recommendations to the Board regarding all confederate iconography and make recommendations going forward for naming.
  • Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer reporting directly to the Superintendent.
  • Relocated the Stonewall Jackson statue.
  • Modified the New Market ceremony to a memorial commemorating all fallen VMI alumni.
  • Relocated the new cadet oath ceremony from New Market battlefield to the VMI Post.
  • Discontinued the re-enactment charge on the New Market battlefield by new cadets.
  • Centering the Parade Ground flag poles on New Barracks (Marshal Arch).
  • Refurbishing the Jonathan Daniel courtyard, in honor of an alumnus killed while protecting two black teenagers during a Civil Rights protest in 1965.
  • Enhanced racial sensitivity training for cadets, faculty and staff.
  • Including the U.S. civil rights movement as part of new core curriculum course required of all cadets.
  • Reviewed and improved the Human Resources diversity Hiring Program.
  • General adoption of Del. Caroll Foy’s seven guiding principles on DEI.

Cooperation in the investigation. … VMI is committed to full cooperation with B&T’s ongoing investigation. Accordingly, VMI has produced over 45,000 pages of documents to B&T (with thousands more pages slated for upcoming productions); the Institute has distributed B&T’s survey to thousands of individuals in the VMI community; VMI has facilitated dozens of cadet interviews and encouraged hundreds more interviews of administration, faculty, staff and employees by B&T investigators; and the Institute has offered extensive information and logistical assistance to the B&T team over the course of its inquiry. …

Based on what VMI has seen over the last few months from B&T, the Institute believes strongly that SCHEV should provide additional oversight of the investigation to ensure its integrity and compliance with the RFP terms. Moreover, VMI should be permitted an opportunity to review and comment on each of the B&T reports (i.e. interim and final) before any official or unofficial public release. …

Let us provide further context regarding the concerns that underlie these requests and suggestions.

B&T errors and omissions. B&T’s first progress report dated February 4, 2021 contained little substantive information and lots of purported explanation for the outside investigators’ failure to make significant progress. B&T cited the recent appointment of outside counsel to represent the Institute, VMI’s concerns regarding V&T’s failure to address federal privacy law, VMI’s refusal to grant honor code amnesty to cadets participating in the investigation, and finally, the requests by VMI to have its newly appointed counsel participate in the (then) upcoming interviews. Although the federal privacy concerns of FERPA, HIPAA, ADA and Title IX had not been fully addressed in the SCHEV-B&T contract or the subsequent addendum, B&T downplayed these actual concerns and sought to cast VMI in a negative light for supposedly impeding the progress of the investigation. …

To VMI’s great disappointment, the latest report is full of misleading and sensationalized observations.

First, B&T claimed, incorrectly, that VMI has not cooperated with cadet interviews of document production. Both assertions are false. VMI has repeatedly encouraged cadets to be interviewed, and the documents cited by B&T in fact had been delivered by VMI to B&T the previous week. Like the claim that B&T did not request suspension of the Honor Code, such mischaracterizations of the record create a false narrative of uncooperativeness by VMI that is both factually wrong and patently unfair.

Second, B&T claimed it was a “common experience to hear racial slurs among VMI cadets” yet the eight cited episodes occurred over a twenty-five year time span. Nor is it clear whether any of these eight claims overlap with the seventeen incidents reported to an investigated by VMI itself. VMI recognizes that a single incident of racism is too many, but calling this a “common experience” is dangerous and wrong. moreover, as it made clear in the documents produced by VMI to B&T, VMI did substantiate thirteen of the seventeen claims with a racial component between 2015 and 2020, and punished the wrongdoers accordingly. Despite that, B&T doubled down on its reporting of unsubstantiated, ad hoc claims elsewhere in the second report. For example, B&T claims that VMI’s consistent record of responsiveness to cadent complaints is eclipsed by a “culture of silence” that “sweep[s] negative instances under the rug,” fails to act on “serious issues,” and “look[s] away.”

Third, B&T devoted substantial text to disturbing incidents of alleged sexual assault and misconduct. But B&T made no effort to filter out third-hand hearsay and speculation from sources who admittedly are only passing along rumor. Moreover, B&T did not make any effort to determine the outcome of VMI’s investigation of any instances that were reported, While VMI cannot investigate unreported incidents of which it has no knowledge, to be sure, the Institute immediately investigates all reported allegations of racism and sexual improprieties. If found to substantiated, action is taken, without exception. VMI will continue to foster a culture where all members of its community are treated with dignity and respect.

Fourth, B&T summarizes its online survey and wide distribution to the VMI community, but the investigators did not report on the overall results. … The B&T survey is significantly flawed in both substance and form, and seems designed more to generate newspaper soundbites than to serve as a legitimate exploratory tool in an independent inquiry. The most troubling aspect of the B&T survey is its repeated use of loaded questions with the apparent goal of bolstering a pre-determined narrative, without proper survey designs and development. Rather than seek information in a neutral manner, these questions advance subjective, highly negative propositions about VMI and solicit agreement. Unsupported assertions contained in such questions include, for example, “VMI’s culture is more racially intolerant than that of other colleges….,” “People of color have to do more than others to prove they belong at VMI,” “It is harder for people of color to succeed at VMI than it is for white people,” “White cadets receive more encouragement than cadets of color to run for positions of leadership,” and on and on. While the claimed purpose of the survey is to allow B&T “to better understand the environment and culture of VMI as an institution … the use of such plainly biased questions suggests that it is, in reality, a results-driven exercise purposely prejudicial to VMI.”

A week after the release of its second progress report, B&T claimed to state officials that VMI was impeding the scheduling of an interview of the Interim Superintendent with the B&T investigation team. This, too, is false. In fact, VMI’s counsel had been attempting to schedule this interview with B&T since March 4, and it was B&T that failed to respond until March 17. …

For all these reasons (any many others), VMI requests that SCHEV provide regular oversight of the investigation to guarantee that the process remains focused on its stated goals and scope. Further, based on the tone and tenor of the two interim reports, it is essential that VMI be permitted an opportunity to review and comment on each of the remaining B&T reports before public release. The firs two interim reports contained erroneous information or failed to include information in the possession of B&T that would have given a more complete picture of the Institute and its culture. Most concerning — if the final report is to have any legitimacy or lasting value to VMI and the broader academic community — such distortions and incomplete reporting cannot be allowed to exist in the final volume to be delivered by the B&T team in June 2021.