What Does the VMI Board Have Planned?

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Military Institute Board of Visitors surprised the VMI community when it posted a notice Monday that it had scheduled a special meeting tomorrow, April 15, to notify the public of its intent “to vote on the selection of the next Superintendent of the Institute.”

The widespread expectation was that the board wouldn’t address that critical decision until the regularly scheduled board meeting April 30. Amidst a hyper-political environment in which Governor Ralph Northam and other leading Democrats have accused VMI of “appalling racism” and launched an “equity audit” that many fear will be rigged, some alumni are asking why the sudden schedule change? Does the board have something planned?

In November the board had hired a search committee to find a replacement for Gen. J.H. Binford Peay II, who had resigned after a series of Washington Post articles alleged “relentless racism” at the military academy. A press release issued at the time stated, “Tentatively, the timeframe for the nomination of a candidate is mid-to-late spring, 2021.”

Nine days later, the board hired retired U.S. Army Major General Cedric T. Wins to serve as interim superintendent, and he is widely considered to be a leading candidate for the permanent position. Wins has won wide acclaim for his stewardship of VMI during a tumultuous period in which the academy was undergoing an “equity audit” and racism investigation, although some alumni have expressed disappointment that he unilaterally altered the Honor Code “drum out” ceremony to stop announcing the names of expelled cadets and has not asserted the institute’s interests vigorously enough against the Barnes & Thornburg team investigating the racism investigation.

An April 15 date would be consistent with the original timeframe, though two weeks earlier than the regularly scheduled April 30 date when the board will consider, among other important issues, how much to increase tuition, fees, and other costs of attendance.

VMI and the board, which have been holding frequent town halls and issuing frequent updates about the superintendent-selection process, have been clear that they expected the search committee to submit its recommendations by the end of April. However, adding to the air of expectation and uncertainty, the selection of a permanent superintendent comes as a commemoration committee is expected to present findings and recommendations about memorials and traditions tied to VMI’s Confederate heritage.

Steve Maconi, CEO of the VMI Alumni Association, said the April 14 date is “a little out of sequence,” and he didn’t know the reason why the board had scheduled a special meeting. But he offered no criticism or concerns about the date.

VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt said that the law requires board meetings to be posted at least three days in advance, and VMI complied

Alumni who contacted Bacon’s Rebellion also expressed concern that the board had set aside only 15 minutes for public comment. The announcement reads as follows: “The Board of Visitors will receive public comments only on matters pertaining to the meeting between 10:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m., 15 April 2021.” Speakers will be limited to three minutes.

The 15-minute time allotment was not an effort to suppress public comment, Wyatt said. “That was our best guess. We don’t turn anyone away if there are throngs of people.”

Carter Melton, a VMI alumnus who served on the search committee that selected Peay more than a decade ago, said he was “a little surprised” that no one on the search committee had reached out to members of the previous committee for perspectives and thoughts, as the committee he’d been on had done. Otherwise, he had no criticism of the current search committee’s work.

No one in contact with Bacon’s Rebellion could point to anything tangible feeding their worries. The restlessness seems to reflect mainly an apprehension that the hammer is about to drop.

The announcement itself seems benign, says Matt Daniel, organizer of the Spirit of VMI PAC. “The alarm is that it popped up a week-and-a-half early. Because it’s ahead of schedule, people are assuming the worst.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Having observed the conduct of the Barnes & Thornburg investigators, many VMI alumni fear that the fix is in: the investigation will confirm Northam’s view that VMI is systemically racist and will make recommendations that fundamentally alter the institutions and traditions that make VMI an incubator of citizen-soldiers of high moral character. And they tend to interpret events at VMI in that framework.

I don’t blame them for fearing the worst from the racism investigation by a firm hand-picked by the Governor’s Office. From what I have seen, the selection of a new superintendent, conducted with the assistance of an executive search firm, has been insulated from direct political pressure. But the indirect pressure is intense. The board cannot ignore the sentiments of Governor Northam and General Assembly leaders who control VMI’s purse strings. And that’s a hard reality no matter what day they pick to make their decision.