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State Diversity Chief Seeks Meaningful Reform at VMI

VMI Building
Virginia Military Institute found itself in the spotlight following several allegations of racism at the public school. A new committee tasked with ensure diversity and inclusivity at the school met for the first time this week. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Virginia’s top diversity officer urged leadership at Virginia Military Institute this week to avoid symbolic actions in their quest to reckon with complaints of racism at the 181-year-old public institution. 

VMI’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee met for the first time Monday to discuss next steps and adopt a charter to guide their operations. The group invited Janice Underwood, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer to offer guidance. 

Underwood outlined best practices, or what she called the “do’s” and “don’ts” of implementing diversity initiatives, compelling VMI leadership to lean into discomfort, be open to different ideas and avoid hollow diversity statements. 

“Don't view diversity initiatives as a one-time investment, or as crisis response,” Underwood told committee members. “You must remove institutional barriers of inequity. And if you don't at least accept the idea that institutional barriers exist, how can you remove them?”

“You can’t want and wish and hope that systemic inequity will just go away because you’re waiting for people to have a change of heart,” she said. 

The committee also heard from VMI instructors and alumni during a public comment period. 

Paul Perry, a 1980 VMI graduate, described his experience as a Black cadet and stressed the importance of handling microaggressions, subtle comments or behaviors that discriminate against a marginalized group. 

“The most frequent microaggression that I've experienced is the belief that Black athletes at VMI got in under special circumstances and that somehow, we didn't qualify or are therefore unworthy of being there,” Perry said. “We tell victims to get over it or grow a thicker skin, but those types of microaggressions are the types that wear [on] us in the back of our minds.”

Northam, a VMI graduate, ordered an investigation into the culture and practices at VMI after allegations of racism at the school surfaced -- including a lynching threat and a faculty member who spoke fondly of her family’s involvement in the Klu Klux Klan in class. Longtime superintendent retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III resigned under pressure after Black cadets described the bigotry in a Washington Post report.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, a Black man, will serve as interim superintendent starting Nov. 30. Wins responded to Underwood’s presentation by saying diversity is not a “spectator sport.” 

“You can’t just think you could put this on autopilot, and it's going to happen,” Wins said.