VMI Alumnus Redirects Intended $900,000 Gift

by James A. Bacon

Colleges and universities have long been prone to clashes between strong-willed presidents and prominent alumni. Over the years there have been numerous well-publicized episodes of donors retracting their benefactions after some run-in with the forces of political correctness. But as “wokeness” becomes the prevailing ideology on many college campuses, and as many alumni have decided they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, these episodes are occurring with ever-greater frequency.

One such incident occurred at the Virginia Military Institute in connection with Governor Ralph Northam’s recent speech at the Institute. On Nov. 14, an alumnus sent the following email (bold face in the original) to Superintendent Cedric Wins and other figures in the VMI leadership:

Good evening. I am a 198- [date redacted] VMI graduate. Two requests, please:

  1. Please immediately cancel Ralph Northam’s speech at VMI Monday, 15 November. He’s a disgrace and a woke buffoon. Don’t subject the Corps of Cadets to his lunacy.
  2. If you won’t accommodate request number one above, then please make his talk optional and not mandatory for the Corps of Cadets.A few months ago, I made a $100,000 donation to the VMI [redacted].  I have also made some other modest donations to VMI this year totaling another $5,000 to $10,000.  I intend to give another $900,000 to charity in the coming 36 to 60 months subject to putting some business matters in order.  I have stayed loyal to VMI even though I vehemently disagree with these actions VMI has taken recently:
    • Firing [former Superintendent J.H. Binford] Peay
    • Removing the statue of General Jackson (versus relocating it to a different place on post / lower visibility area)
    • Hiring a Diversity  / Equity / Inclusion officer (which is Latin for discriminating against better qualified white males for lesser qualified women and minorities)

    If you don’t accommodate either request number one or request number two above, then I will give the aforementioned $900,000 to the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Tower Foundation instead of the VMI [redacted]. (Stephen’s Story – Tunnel to Towers Foundation (t2t.org). It is a well-run Christian charity without any of the political / woke nonsense associated with it. Thank you.


    [Name redacted]
    [A partner in a private equity firm]

(I obtained this email through a third party who demanded the sender’s anonymity as a condition of sharing it. I have not communicated directly with the sender.)

The political views of the sender are far from universal. Plenty of liberal-leftist alumni are fully on board with the idea of universities as engines of social justice, and they continue to give generously. Witness the recent $100 million contribution from Martha and Bruce Karsh to establish the Karsh Institute of Democracy at UVA.

Still, the alumni rebellion is spreading, and it is organizing.  One of the weapons the discontents wield is the power to withhold their contributions. A few huge donations like the Karsh gift can overshadow the more routine bequests that occur outside the public eye. Needless to say, VMI will never issue a press release to tout the fact that one of its alumni just canceled a promised gift, or, in the case above, redirected his future charitable donation — nor would any other college or university. But that silence is not evidence that cancellations aren’t occurring. We just don’t hear about them.

Among the critical metrics of alumni giving that every higher-ed institution tracks are the total sum donated and the percentage of alumni who stroke checks. Universities dole that information out sparingly, when it suits their purposes.

One figure that anyone can access is the total level of “gifts, grants, and contributions” made in any given year. This figure is reported in universities’ annual financial statements. Thus, we can look up VMI’s 2019-20 annual statement and see that the Institute recorded $19.8 million in contributions that year, up 9.8% from the previous year. Unfortunately, VMI has not yet published its 2020-21 annual report, so there is a significant time lag in the reporting, and we cannot know if dissatisfaction with developments there have affected giving. If the individual quoted above was an outlier or representative of a broader trend, the public will not know for some time.

Even if we had up-t0-date data, there are many reasons why giving might fluctuate, such as the business climate, tax laws that effect estate planning, and random deaths of wealthy alumni who leave their alma maters in their wills.

Perhaps the only way to tell if alumni rebellion at VMI and other institutions is having an impact is if rebel alumni begin announcing their cancellations. Their actions would have greater impact, too, if they would attach their names to their actions and tell their stories. The individual cited above had personal reasons for staying anonymous. In the future, hopefully, alumni will be willing to voice their reasons openly.