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Investigation Shows Racism Present, Sometimes Tolerated at VMI

A line of canons
A line of canons at the entrance to the barracks at Virginia Military Institute Wednesday July 15, 2020, in Lexington, Va. The school founded in 1839, is the oldest state-supported military college in the United States. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A months-long special investigation into alleged racism at Virginia Military Institute is complete. The state released the 145-page report detailing its findings on Tuesday.  

Last fall, Virginia lawmakers agreed to spend $1 million to investigate the practices and traditions at VMI, following numerous complaints from Black cadets and alumni who say they experienced racism from faculty and fellow cadets.  

The Roanoke Times published a story about the complaints one year ago and the issue was thrust into the national spotlight following a Washington Post story in mid-October 2020. 

One VMI graduate, Keniya Lee, submitted a complaint about a white professor who she said spoke fondly during class about her family’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan. Lee told VPM last October that she doesn’t think VMI is a bad place but “it just needs a structural change for people like myself to succeed.” 

In late July 2020, former VMI superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III announced some steps the school would take to address the concerns. Those steps included reviewing history courses to make sure they are taught in the proper context and from different perspectives. Cadets are also now required to take a new class called “American Civic Experience” that explores issues like racial injustice and slavery.  

VMI leaders also promised to change some historic symbols on campus -- The Cadet Oath ceremony, for example, would no longer involve a reenactment of a Civil War battle that VMI cadets fought on behalf of the confederacy. 

Last month, VMI’s Board of Visitors voted to remove a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from the student barracks 

But the report released Tuesday goes beyond the presence of offensive symbols on campus.    

The results of a survey shows half of African American cadets strongly or somewhat agree that there is a culture of racial intolerance at VMI, compared to 10% of white cadets. Similarly, 42% of Black respondents said that Black cadets are discriminated against “a lot” at VMI, compared to 4% of white cadets who feel that way. 

More than one white respondent said that the real racial issue at VMI is racism against whites.  

“These responses and perceptions paint a picture of a VMI where African Americans experience racism, but Caucasian cadets do not or choose not to see it,” the report said. 

The survey also found that minority respondents, who are not Black, did not report experiencing the same level of racism. 

The report found that when cadets use racial slurs or jokes, they are sometimes excused by administrators “based on a lack of diversity in the cadets’ upbringing.” 

Investigators recommended that VMI commit to educating all cadets proactively on race and gender issues. 

VMI also needs to step up its diversity efforts, the report concluded.  

A look at VMI’s demographics showed the college is consistently less diverse than other colleges, universities and military academies. VMI also lags when it comes to implementing, supporting, and publicizing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. 

There is a perception among white cadets that there is not a race problem, despite the investigation finding a prevalence of use of racial slurs and jokes on post.  

Many cadets instead blame a rift between athletes and non-athletes. And this breeds racial resentment because it is incorrectly perceived that most athletes at VMI are African American.  

VMI Superintendent, Major General Cedric Wins received a briefing Tuesday from Governor Ralph Northam’s office and Barnes & Thornburg, the firm that conducted the audit of VMI’s diversity, equity and inclusion practices.   

“Over the past six months, I have spent countless hours listening to cadets, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni to better understand the culture of the Institute,” Wins said in a statement. “I have done deep dives on the policies and procedures of the many offices and departments that help to carry out the VMI mission. As with any organization, there is always room for improvement.” 

Wins has put forth a “unifying action plan” to move VMI forward, called One Corps – One VMI.  

“Recommendations from the Barnes & Thornburg report will be evaluated through the lens of the VMI mission and our unique method of education, and, where appropriate, be integrated into the One Corps - One VMI plan,” Wins said.  

Wins told VPM, VMI will also work with the state’s council of higher education to determine what it needs to do next. 

The Board of Visitors also responded to the report.  

“We are in the process of studying the report and will be developing an appropriate plan of action which is consistent with VMI’s mission and method of education, the board stated. “To that point, we are extremely confident in the direction set by Superintendent Major General Wins, and he has our full support as we navigate through these challenging times.” 

Governor Northam and other statewide leaders issued a joint statement on the investigation’s conclusions.  

“The investigation found that institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated, and too often left unaddressed,” the statement said. “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. 

State leaders committed to holding VMI, the nation’s oldest publicly funded military college and an agency of the state, accountable.  

Upon the release of the state’s investigation, spokesperson Bill Wyatt provided several  documents detailing the work VMI has already done to strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. It includes improving enrollment of cadets of color from 12.7% in 1992 to 23.4% in 2020, hiring a chief diversity officer and creating a diversity, equity and inclusion committee of the Board of Visitors to oversee and monitor all race and gender related matters.