Virginia Business – Published June 1, 2021 by Kate Andrews
A long-awaited state report on an alleged culture of racism at Virginia Military Institute was released Tuesday afternoon, concluding that “VMI has … traditionally been run by white men, for white men,” although the state-funded military institution in Lexington has made “incremental steps towards a more diverse, inclusive VMI.”
In a statement Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a 1981 VMI alumnus, said, “The investigation found that institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated and too often left unaddressed. While VMI has taken incremental steps forward since this review began, much more is needed. The question is whether VMI is willing to acknowledge this reality. The commonwealth will study this report carefully and then take appropriate action. VMI would be wise to do so as well. VMI is an agency of state government, and we will hold it accountable.”
The Washington, D.C.-based law firm Barnes & Thornburg LLP conducted the state-funded equity investigation into VMI beginning in January, interviewing cadets, alumni, faculty and staff. The firm’s final equity audit report describes the culture at VMI as “one of silence, fear and intimidation,” based on statements by current cadets, alumni and faculty — including during the investigation. “Interviewees reported that, in some sexual assault cases, members of the VMI administration have actively dissuaded victims from making reports. Interview respondents also explained that they perceived or experienced that VMI leadership puts a high priority on suppressing information and avoiding difficult situations, and less of a priority on addressing underlying problems. The [investigative team] had the same experience. VMI has taken affirmative steps to prevent negative information from making it into this report.”
VMI posted a new page Tuesday on its website titled “VMI Promise” that acknowledges the accusations and adds that the school is “a microcosm of society and not immune to the challenges of racism of sexual misconduct which occur on college campuses across the nation.” The statement notes, though, that “There are some who have made allegations that institutional racism is prevalent at VMI, but the facts simply do not support that position. Like many college campuses, we too have had incidences where racial slurs and racist acts have been perpetrated. That is not an experience that any of our cadets should have to endure, and we have taken action to address that concern. According to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, VMI has implemented systems and training programs to properly address those issues.”
The institute also promotes its initiatives to “strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion efforts” on the page, including the hiring of its first chief diversity officer in late May. However, the investigative team found that VMI lags significantly behind other military colleges in DEI programs and that it “does not have a DEI plan, just a statement of diversity.”
In March, the firm released an interim report in which alumni and current cadets said they heard racial slurs “on a regular basis” at the school. A Black alumnus said he was called the n-word “many times” between 2018 and 2021, and in the mid-1990s, an Asian graduate said he “routinely” was called “sand n-word” by an upperclassman.
The final report also notes that sexual assault, especially against female cadets, is “prevalent,” yet has been “inadequately addressed by the Institute.” Fourteen percent of current female cadets reported being sexually assaulted at VMI, while 63% said that a fellow cadet — both men and women — had told them they had been a victim of sexual assault during their time at the institute. The report says that 27% of current female cadets reported being sexually harassed at VMI, and female faculty members and staff also reported sexual harassment at the institute.
A current female cadet told investigators that a staff member told one of her female friends, “If you cannot handle sexual assaults, you should not be at VMI,” the report says.
Despite “extensive” sexual assault training, “female cadets report that male cadets treat it as a joke and an opportunity for misogynistic humor, without consequence.” Many women said they reported their assaults but that they went “unaddressed” by VMI administration, and that at times administrators “intimidated female cadets to reconsider assault reports.”
The report determines that “issues of gender inequity and sexual assault may not be unique to VMI. But the character, quantity and severity of the issues described … do not exist everywhere. These issues are worse at VMI and they need to be addressed immediately.”
VMI’s statement on its website, though, said, “It cannot be overstated — sexual harassment or sexual assault is not and will never be tolerated at this institution. Perhaps what pains us most is hearing some cadets and alumni say that they were apprehensive to bring issues forward out of fear of reprisal. No cadet should ever feel the administration, faculty, or staff at VMI are not here for them. Addressing these issues is of paramount importance.”
In its recommendations, the five-person investigation team writes in the report that VMI should be required to submit regular written reports to the governor, the General Assembly and other stakeholders, but it stops short of recommending that “any of VMI’s core policies, practices and traditions, including the Honor Code and Rat Line, be abolished.” The report also recommends “that VMI leadership examine how it can create an environment that does not disadvantage or impose disparate effects on minorities.”
In the introductory summary of the report, the investigative team wrote that the school “has sustained systems that disadvantage minority and female cadets and faculty, and has left VMI trailing behind its peer institutions. If VMI refuses to think critically about its past and present, and to confront how racial and ethnic minorities and women experience VMI, it will remain a school for white men.” Although the installation of retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins — VMI’s first Black superintendent — as interim superintendent in November has led to some positive change, the report says that “many in the VMI community, including senior leaders, perceive no issues or reasons to change.”
Specifically, the report says that 42% of current Black cadets responded that they are discriminated against “a lot” at VMI, and half say they “strongly or somewhat agree that there is a culture of racial intolerance at VMI,” while the number of white cadets who agree with these statements are much lower.
“Racial slurs and jokes are not uncommon on post,” the report adds, and VMI’s response is “insufficient,” with administrators sometimes excusing such offenses, although the school provides “education and training” to cadets who say racially or ethnically offensive statements.
The report also says that a common opinion among white participants is “that there is not a race problem, but a problem with a divide between athletes and nonathletes,” with nonathlete cadets feeling that NCAA athletes receive preferential treatment at the school. As for allegations that Honor Court and Honor Code cases are conducted unfairly, the report says that they are fair “when examined in isolation” although of 91 cases involving convictions over the past 10 years, 41% of dismissed cadets were nonwhite, despite making up only 23% of the corps.
“Elimination of the fundamental elements of the Honor Code or Honor Court is not recommended,” the report says, but the institute “should include a root cause analysis of these statistics, revisions to training and procedures to implement more equitable processes.”
The report also says VMI has an “outdated, idealized reverence for the Civil War and the Confederacy,” including traditions related to the era “given disproportionate attention.”
VMI’s Board of Visitors has scheduled a special meeting Wednesday afternoon that the school described as primarily a closed meeting “to receive consultation regarding specific legal matters … regarding to the ongoing equity audit of VMI.”
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) released the 150-page report Tuesday. “SCHEV will not reach any conclusions or make any recommendations on the … study until after we have had ample time to review it,” SCHEV Director Peter Blake said in a statement. “We look forward to engaging VMI as well as the broader higher education community to consider issues raised by the report and recommendations.”
According to the school’s VMI Promise webpage, there will be a cadet-led Cultural Awareness Training program that is in development, with a goal of enhancing cadets’ “understanding of cultural differences amongst members of the Corps and to promote civility and respect.”
Northam announced the third-party probe in October and allocated $1 million toward the investigation.
Last year, The Roanoke Times and The Washington Post reported recent cadets’ allegations of racist behavior and words by fellow students and faculty, including a Black student who said he was threatened with lynching by another cadet in 2018. The public airing of cadets’ complaints led to the October resignation of VMI Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III, a retired U.S. Army general who served as the school’s leader for 17 years, and the removal of the school’s Stonewall Jackson statue, which honored the former Confederate general and VMI educator. Until recent years, cadets were required to salute the monument as they passed.
In May, VMI hired Jamica N. Love as chief diversity officer. She will report to Wins beginning July 9.