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In clash over VMI’s future, Youngkin appoints conservatives to board

The picks by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) were applauded by alumni resisting change at Virginia Military Institute

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), speaks in an interview in his office in Richmond earlier this year. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
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In his first major step to shape the future of the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Thursday named four White, mostly conservative members to the Board of Visitors at the Virginia Military Institute, including a former member who resigned in 2020 right before the vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from the campus.

The 182-year-old school, whose cadets fought and died for the South during the Civil War, has been mired in allegations of racism and sexism that continue to divide alumni into rival camps of those who support change and those resisting it.

Two of the four new board members appointed by Youngkin are well-known in Republican political circles or within the conservative alumni wing. John Adams, a McGuire Woods lawyer who graduated from VMI in 1996, ran unsuccessfully as the Republican nominee for Virginia attorney general in 2017. Adams, a former clerk for Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, and his law firm were tapped by the VMI Alumni Agencies to help it defend the school against an independent investigation ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) into the college. The state-funded probe concluded that the school has a “racist and sexist culture” and must change.

A second Youngkin pick is Thomas “Teddy” Gottwald, the former VMI board member. Gottwald, who graduated from VMI in 1983, resigned his seat in October 2020 right before the body voted to remove the Jackson statue from its prominent perch on the Lexington campus. The head of a petroleum additives holding company, Gottwald donated $77,500 to Youngkin’s campaign and another $25,000 to the Spirit of VMI political action committee, a group of alumni that has denigrated and mocked the investigation and reforms the college has made in response to its findings.

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The two other new board members are Ernest Edgar, a 1987 VMI graduate who is the general counsel of an engineering design and construction firm called Atkins North America, according to his LinkedIn page, and Meaghan Mobbs, a 2008 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., who is a consulting and public affairs firm vice president. She worked as a senior policy adviser to the Youngkin campaign, according to her bio on the website of her firm.

Mobbs, a former member of the Board of Visitors at the U.S. Military Academy, made news last year when she and other Trump appointees serving on similar boards at the Naval and Air Force academies were asked by the Biden administration to resign or be fired. Mobbs refused to quit and tweeted that she found the move “unconscionable.”

Adams, Edgar, Mobbs and Youngkin declined interview requests. Gottwald did not return messages seeking comment. In a statement announcing his selections at VMI and the rest of the Virginia public colleges or universities, Youngkin noted that, among many of his priorities, were “protecting and promoting free speech, restoring the ability to have civil discourse.”

His selections were highly anticipated by the VMI community. Some graduates, students and faculty worry that the governor may completely overhaul the board, which oversees the school budget process and appoints its superintendent, with conservative members who would roll back some of the efforts designed to make VMI more inclusive and diverse. Just 6 percent of the 1,650 cadets at the college are Black, while women make up 14 percent of the student body.

“I am very unhappy with this chain of events,” said Shah Rahman, a member of the Class of 1997 who helped spearhead the campaign for VMI reforms. “We have been worried about a reversal of progress even before Youngkin’s election, but especially now. The other side is not going to give up until the Jackson statue is back on campus. They did not believe in the investigation, and they are completely against everything we have stood for and fought for.”

Matt Daniel, who helped launch and has chaired the Spirit of VMI, did not return messages seeking comment. In a statement on Friday, the political action committee said it “applauds” the appointments and that it had recommended two of the four picks, without saying who. “But all four reflect a respect and understanding of the educational and social rubrics and traditions that have made VMI great,” the statement read.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin appeared to criticize Northam for ordering the investigation in an interview he gave to Daniel. Youngkin also denounced critical race theory and issued an executive order once he took office banning Virginia public schools from teaching about systemic racism. Most recently, he has begun rooting out the word “equity” from state government policies.

His selections made the VMI board slightly less racially diverse by replacing one Black member, Sean Lanier, a member of the VMI class of 1994. Lanier was appointed by Northam to replace Gottwald in 2020. The new makeup of the VMI board includes nine White men, four Black men, two White women, one Hispanic man and one Native American woman.

“I would have liked to stay on the board,” said Lanier, a retired Army major who runs an education nonprofit called Resolve Solutions that helps minority students nationwide with their applications for colleges and ROTC scholarships. During his nearly two years on the board, Lanier belonged to its diversity, equity and inclusion committee. He also helps administer an unofficial VMI Facebook group for the college’s minority alumni.

“When the former superintendent asked me nearly a decade ago to help recruit more African Americans to attend VMI, the percentage of Black VMI students commissioning was in the low single digits, and now well over 50 percent of Black students are commissioning,” Lanier said. “I’m very proud of that, but there is still work to do.”

After Northam ordered the investigation in the fall of 2020, retired Gen. James Henry Binford Peay, the longtime White superintendent, resigned. He was replaced by retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985 and became the school’s first Black superintendent.

The board announcements came shortly after Youngkin signed the state budget that pumped more money than usual into VMI and every other public four-year university or college in the state. For the 2022 academic year starting this fall, the overall VMI budget climbed to $111 million with about $29 million of that in state taxpayer funds. The prior year, the overall budget was more than $99 million with over $21 million in state funds.

One reason for the jump is that lawmakers agreed to give VMI an extra $3.7 million of general fund revenue in response to the college’s request to pay for academic support and cadet welfare initiatives, plus reforms recommended by the state investigation, such as the hiring of a slew of new employees in the admissions, Title IX and chief diversity offices, and an effort to rebrand or contextualize the Confederate tributes on campus.

In the end, the $3.7 million allotment for its “One Corps, One VMI” initiatives has pleased school officials, according to college spokesman Bill Wyatt. But the language of the appropriation appears to come with a slight caveat that the money may not be used to fund the expansion of the college’s chief diversity office, Wyatt said.

The General Assembly said that the money is designated to address several initiatives, such as the expansion of the Title IX office at VMI, the rebranding of its Confederate memorials and the adjustment of staff salaries. But the appropriation omits on the list of recipients any mention of the expansion of its diversity office.

The office is led by chief diversity officer Jamica Love, the college’s highest ranking Black woman. Briana Williams, who is also a Black woman, was recently hired as the college’s deputy chief diversity officer. Wyatt said three out of the four positions for the diversity office have been filled so far.

“It was an expense we were hoping the state would fund,” Wyatt said. “But in the absence of state funding, we’ll find a way to fund it. We’re appreciative of the General Assembly and the governor for what they’ve provided this year. Any time you go into a budget session and come out with more money than you did before, it is a good thing.”

Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax), one of three members of the General Assembly who helped finalize the budget between the two chambers, said in an interview that VMI might be able to use some of the $3.7 million to cover the costs of its diversity office.

“My interpretation of the language is that VMI can clearly use the $3.7 million for the items listed, but that the language would not prevent them from using the money on the expansion of the diversity office if there was some money left over,” he said. “The intent of the House Republicans was to say that the expansion of VMI’s diversity office is not the starting point and that they wanted to fund the other items first.”

Barker said he did not fully understand why House Republicans did not want to include the expansion of the diversity office as one of the expressly stated recipients of the $3.7 million. “There was not really a significant explanation from the Republicans, but it was clear that” allowing VMI to use the money for the diversity office “was something of a concern to them,” Barker said. “We had to really compromise on a few things.”

House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), who was negotiating with Barker and Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, over the final deal, did not return requests for comment.

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