Virginia Military Institute chief quits amid racism probe

Oldest state-funded military college has history of venerating Confederacy

October 27, 2020

The head of the Virginia Military Institute resigned after top state leaders condemned the “appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at the oldest state-funded military college in the US.

The state government leaders, including Governor Ralph Northam, a VMI graduate, listed complaints that included black students facing long-standing and repeated instances of on-campus racism and threats of attacks and lynchings.

The officials – including the top leaders of the state legislature – announced both a state government review of VMI’s campus culture and an outside assessment of how it compares with that of other universities.

All Virginia universities need “to be welcoming and inclusive, and to eschew outdated traditions that glamorise a history rooted in rebellion against the United States”, the state leaders said in a letter to John Boland, head of VMI’s governing board of visitors.

Their complaint reflected VMI’s enduring ties to and veneration of the pro-slavery forces in the US Civil War. That includes a statue in the centre of campus of Stonewall Jackson, a leading Confederate general and professor in VMI’s early years.

Mr Boland, an attorney and VMI graduate, wrote back to the state leaders saying he welcomed the investigations and expected that they would find some instances of “inappropriate behavior” by students and faculty but no evidence of “systemic racism”.

But the VMI superintendent, retired US Army General J. H. Binford Peay III, in his own two-paragraph written response, said he recognised that state leaders “had lost confidence in my leadership” and agreed to resign immediately.

VMI is the first among five public “senior military colleges” in the US, which are similar to the federal military academies in that they grant bachelor’s degrees and require all physically fit students to take courses in military training.

An analysis in June by two visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said that the US military and its academies – mirroring the wider US society – have been slow to confront rising rates of racism and white nationalism in the past few years.

The US defense secretary, Mark Esper, issued an order in July that in effect banned the display of Confederate flags from all military facilities.

VMI, with $19 million (£15 million) in annual state funding, was Virginia’s last public college to integrate, admitting five black students in 1968 only on a court order. It began admitting women in 1997.

African Americans now account for only 8 per cent of VMI’s 1,700 students, three of its 17 board members, and none of its top school officials.

Concerns surrounding VMI and General Peay extend beyond attitudes towards black people. Reported instances include a 2005 incident of students dressing as Nazis and mocking gay people that General Peay attributed to “college kids who are trying to use humor”; a US Education Department investigation of General Peay’s allegedly unsympathetic handling of a 2011 sexual assault complaint against a VMI administrator; and a VMI professor in 2019 recalling fondly for her class her father’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

General Peay also fought this year against demands from some students and alumni to take down the Stonewall Jackson statue, calling the slave-holding Confederate luminary “a military genius” and a “staunch Christian”.

For many of General Peay’s 17 years leading VMI, the institute required its first-year students to salute the Jackson statue. Mike Pence, the US vice-president, addressed VMI students in September, praising the institution for 181 years of “training up citizen-soldiers who are educated, confident, capable leaders”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I thought Hitler was a military genius as well. Maybe they should put up a statue. Lincoln made a mistake pardoning the traitors. As Trump states, you know what we do to traitors!

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