Virginia Military Institute found to harbour deep racism

Love for Confederacy permeates oldest state-funded military college in the US, investigation concludes

June 2, 2021
Lexington, VirginiaUSA - April 5, 2008 VMI, Virginia Military Institute
Source: iStock

The Virginia Military Institute has an ingrained “racist and sexist culture”, with students and faculty fearful of reporting acts of bigotry or sexual abuse to administrators, an outside investigation has concluded.

The 182-year-old college suffers from “an outdated, idealised reverence for the Civil War and the Confederacy”, according to the report compiled for the state by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg.

Virginia state leaders ordered the investigation of VMI after a report last October by The Washington Post tallied a series of racist incidents at the oldest state-funded military college in the US.

Their move led VMI’s superintendent, retired General J. H. Binford Peay, to resign after 17 years and be replaced by VMI’s first black leader, retired Major General Cedric Wins.

For its investigation, Barnes & Thornburg spent six months collecting responses from 540 current students, 1,630 alumni, and 326 members of VMI’s faculty and administration, most of whom are also alumni.

Their responses, the report says, reflected deep racial divides on perspectives about the problem. Black cadets account for only 6 per cent of VMI’s 1,700 students, and half of them told Barnes & Thornburg that the school had a culture of racial intolerance. Only 10 per cent of white students agreed, it said.

The investigative report also found that students of racial minorities were disproportionately penalised for honour code violations, and 14 per cent of female students said they had suffered sexual assault.

VMI places heavy emphasis on celebrating traditions from the Confederate side of the Civil War, with “almost no representation of other military or civil rights iconography”, the Barnes & Thornburg report says.

Maj Gen Wins, a 1985 VMI graduate, already has taken steps that include removing from campus a statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, and halting public ceremonies to shame students expelled for honour code violations.

He issued a statement calling the investigative report a chance for the VMI community to come together and make necessary changes.

Not all agree. One VMI graduate, Tom Slater, quit the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in protest against the decision by the state’s governor, Ralph Northam, also a VMI graduate, to publicly release the report before VMI had a chance to review and comment on it.

The state provides VMI with $19 million (£13 million) a year, and Mr Northam said he wanted the report issued without conditions to help ensure the independence of the investigation.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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