By James A. Bacon, this first appeared in Bacon’s Rebellion.
Aside from the occasional Washington Post hit job, the Virginia Military Institute has faded from the daily headlines. But the controversy over race has not diminished in the slightest, and several conflicts are percolating out of public view. For now I’ll settle for outlining the big picture, and I’ll fill in the details in subsequent posts, as I can.
Two things are going on. First, Superintendent Cedric T. Twins and VMI’s Board of Visitors are undertaking to implement the recommendations — or to put it more more accurately, the spirit of the recommendations — of the Barnes & Thornburg report that claimed to have found evidence of systemic racism and sexism at VMI. Second, many alumni are fighting back, and they hope to enlist the help of Governor Glenn Youngkin, who seeks to reorient Virginia’s policies about race away from Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI), with all of its social-justice implications, to Diversity, Opportunity & Inclusion.
VMI leaders, appointed by Governor Ralph Northam, is pursuing a DEI makeover of VMI on two main fronts. The first is a $6.1 million budget request to implement Wins’ “One Corps, One VMI Unifying Action Plan,” by funding 21 new positions and four existing positions. Wins maintains that 12.8% of the request is dedicated to DEI efforts and the rest toward “cadet life, academic support, and competitive salaries for faculty and staff.”
However, VMI alumni have issued a white paper contending that 100% of the budget request is designed to build DEI bureaucracy and related initiatives, and that the Wins team is playing semantic games by suggesting otherwise. The white paper also suggests that the hires go beyond anything actually called for in the Barnes & Thornburg report.
In a related matter, VMI has issued a RFP to hire a diversity training firm. Dissident alumni say that a McLean firm specializing in DEI training, NewPoint Strategies, Inc., has submitted the winning contract and that VMI is days away from signing it. Worried that the training contract is extremely “woke” and diametrically opposed to the direction Youngkin wants higher-ed to go, VMI alumni are frantically trying to reach members of the administration to warn them. If the contract is accepted, it could provide an off-the-shelf training program for any university in Virginia’s public education system that wants to implement it.
The political fault lines at VMI have shifted dramatically. The Washington Post, which ignited the furor over alleged racism in multiple articles a year-and-a-half ago, has pivoted from attacking VMI to making dissent VMI alumni the issue. Relations between Post report Ian Shapira and VMI administrators had been so touchy that VMI had taken to recording and publicly posting transcripts of his interviews. But once it was clear that Wins and the Board embraced DEI, Shapira turned his sights on alumni who were fighting to preserve VMI’s core traditions and values.
In a January 28 article, Shapira highlighted an confrontation between VMI alumnus Carmen D. Villani, Jr., an outspoken defender of VMI traditions, and General Wins. Interviewed on WRVA’s John Reid Show, Villani had urged legislators to scrutinize VMI’s $6.1 million budget request and suggested that “critical race theory” had “entered into the VMI realm.”
Wins took the step — highly unusual for a college CEO — of responding publicly. “VMI’s funding request will pale in comparison to that of the other public colleges in the state,” he wrote on a VMI Facebook page for parents, addressing Villani. “You have no understanding of [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] or what it means, or how much of the funding for DEI is represented in our request.”
Here is how Shapira framed the new dynamic:
Since Wins took the helm of the 182-year-old Lexington campus in November 2020, he has tried to modernize the college’s culture without alienating conservative donors or alumni deeply wedded to VMI’s traditions and history. But 14 months into his tenure, Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985, is still confronting resistance to change from alumni and students.
Shapira pointed to the Spirit of VMI Political Action Committee as the source of much of the opposition, which includes wealthy alumni who donated to Youngkin. Among those were Thomas “Teddy” Gottwald, Class of 1983, and, Grover Outland III, Class of 1981, both of whom, in Shapira’s formulation, resigned from the VMI Board of Visitors before it voted to remove the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the grounds. While many Spirit of VMI supporters were distressed by the purge of any memory of Jackson, whom they revered because he was a military hero not because he fought for the Confederacy, they also objected to the portrayal of VMI as a racist institution, resented Northam’s dismissal of J.H. Binford Peay III as superintendent to make way for Wins, and feared for the integrity of the honor code and the Rat Line.
Many wealthy VMI alumni had supported Northam in his bid for Governor, and felt betrayed by the way, as they perceived it, he turned on Peay and VMI after his blackface scandal. Northam had been scheduled to address VMI’s graduation ceremony when the scandal erupted. With Northam’s political survival in question, Peay deemed it prudent to dis-invite him. Peay later invited then-Vice President Mike Pence to speak at the military academy — a move that some criticized at the time as partisan. Many VMI alumni believe that Northam developed a personal grudge against Peay as a result, and that his firing of the VMI superintendent and subsequent decrying of the Governor’s alma mater as a “systemically racist” institution was born of personal pique.
I have been unable to find any evidence to prove or disprove that theory, but the fact remains that many VMI alumni are convinced that the Northam-initiated war against VMI was illegitimate, and that the Barnes & Thornburg report ordered by Northam reached politically ordained conclusions about racism and sexism. These alumni now are determined to prevent the institutionalizing of a DEI regime where they see no justification for it.