In the spring of 2017, Ralph Northam’s Democratic primary campaign for governor was in full swing when top administrators at the Eastern Virginia Medical School came to its president, Richard Homan, with incendiary information.
Years earlier, an alumni affairs director paging through a 1984 yearbook on a table while preparing for an event had come across a photograph on Northam’s page that shocked her, a picture of one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. She decided to remove it so attendees would not be offended.
Now, though, with Northam running for governor, administrators, including Brant Cox, Homan’s chief of staff, showed him the page for the first time and asked if EVMS had an obligation to do something about it, including notifying Northam, according to the report of an investigation into the photograph released on Wednesday.
“It was an extraordinarily offensive and inflammatory picture,” Homan said in an interview.
It was also not the first time he’d seen those kinds of pictures. Three years earlier, Homan’s vice president for diversity and inclusion had shown him 2013 yearbook photos of three white students dressed in Confederate uniforms, standing in front of a Confederate battle flag. Homan ended the publication of yearbooks.
He decided the best action in the interests of the school was no action. EVMS would not get involved.
“In no way did I want to be perceived as having put any weight on the scales of an election,” he said Thursday from Long Island, N.Y., where he was at a wedding. “That was not my job. My job is to manage and grow and improve the academic institution for which I’m responsible.”
What Homan didn’t know until February of this year is that his predecessor, Harry T. Lester, also knew about the Northam photo. Lester, who served from 2005 to 2013, also decided to do nothing.
During Lester’s tenure, others knew about the yearbook page, including the assistant vice president of marketing and communications, the associate vice president for the Office of Development, and the alumni affairs director.
Vincent Rhodes, the assistant vice president for marketing and communications, was among those who informed Lester about the yearbook page. He could not recall the year, but said it was during a previous campaign of Northam’s, who first entered politics in 2008. Lester’s conclusion was simple: stay out of politics, Rhodes said.
Lester did not respond to texts, emails or voice mails left for him.
EVMS, founded in Norfolk in 1973, is an usual public-private hybrid. Less than 10 percent of its current budget — about $26 million — came from the state. But seven of the 17 members who serve on its Board of Visitors are appointed by the governor and the legislature.
Homan said he did not tell the Board of Visitors after he saw the Northam yearbook page. He said he consulted the school’s attorney briefly, and she did not disagree with his thinking that it would be wrong to make the image public during the heated 2017 campaign for governor. He also didn’t feel the need to consult outside counsel.
“I didn’t feel it rose to that level,” he said.
Investigators included Homan’s reasoning in their report, which was commissioned by the school and headed by Richard Cullen, a senior partner at McGuireWoods and a former Virginia attorney general.
The investigation could not determine the identity of either individual in the photograph. Northam originally took responsibility for appearing in the photo after it was published on Feb. 1 by a conservative website. But then a day later said he no longer believed it was him and could not explain why it appeared on his 1984 yearbook page, although he did admit he wore blackface for a dance contest that same year.
Virginia House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said the school should have considered letting an outside authority decide whether to disclose the page.
“It seems like being emotionally and financially invested in someone and then being in a position about whether to reveal something so incendiary should have given them pause,” Gilbert said. “I can’t speak to their motivation, but it just seems very unfortunate that people knew about that over many years and it just sat there unnoticed by anyone else while the governor’s star continued to rise.”
Asked to comment on the notion that by doing nothing, he was putting his thumb on the scale, Homan demurred.
“Those yearbooks were publicly available for years,” he said. “They were in the hands of contemporaries for years. The press had access if they chose to review them,” he said. “I didn’t feel there was an obligation for me to disclose the information to Dr. Northam personally.”
Homan joined EVMS as dean of medicine in 2012 and became president in 2013 after serving as president and dean of Drexel University’s College of Medicine in Philadelphia. His current contract at EVMS, which pays him $828,115 annually, began on Jan. 1, 2017, and runs through 2021 with two-year renewal terms after that.
After the Northam page became public in February, Homan said he spoke to Lester, who told him he did not get involved for the same reasons.
“To make that public at any time would have had significant political implications. We’re not political so there was a decision not to do it,” he added. “His thought processes — I talked to him after the fact — were similar to mine.”
Lester, who has donated nearly $350,000 to political candidates over the years, gave $19,500 to Northam for his run for governor and $5,000 for his campaign for lieutenant governor before that, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Homan donated $1,000 to Northam’s gubernatorial run and $1,000 to his bid for lieutenant governor. He also gave $6,000 to the campaigns of Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) from 2013 to 2018. Homan gave another $10,000 to Northam’s inaugural committee, a donation that Rhodes, the EVMS spokesman, said was actually from the school for tickets to events for EVMS administrators.
Homan said any political donations he made as a private citizen had no bearing on his decisions as a school leader.
In the two years leading up to when the photo became international news, Homan didn’t think about it coming to light. “I assumed other people may have seen it,” he said. “I assumed his classmates and peers in the years before and after might have seen it.”
David Arias, the EVMS rector and a board member for eight years, said he didn’t think Homan or Lester needed to tell the board about the page. He also noted that Homan has focused on improving diversity and inclusion at the school since his arrival. “When all this broke, I thought it was surreal because in my opinion we are very inclusive and very diverse,” he said.
Earlier this year, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education selected EVMS to receive the organization’s Institutional Excellence Award. The award is given annually to a single institution to celebrate the school’s progress in sustaining innovative diversity efforts on campus.
Homan, meanwhile, stands by his decision.
“I did this with the intent of doing the right things for the right reasons. I was in a very difficult situation when I saw the picture initially,” he said. “I believe I came to the right decision in my role as the president and dean of the school of medicine of EVMS.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.