The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VMI selects first Black superintendent as racial climate comes under scrutiny

Retired Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins was appointed the first Black superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. (U.S. Army)

The Virginia Military Institute, under scrutiny over its treatment of minorities, has selected its first Black superintendent in the school’s 182-year history.

Cedric T. Wins, a retired Army major general and 1985 VMI graduate, was appointed Thursday to the top job in a unanimous vote by the college’s Board of Visitors, the body that oversees the Lexington school.

Wins, 57, who grew up in Hyattsville, Md., and was the first in his family to attend college, has been leading the nation’s oldest state-supported military college since Nov. 13, when he was appointed as interim superintendent. He replaced retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, 80, who resigned Oct. 26, seven days after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an investigation into the school, and nine days after The Washington Post chronicled rampant racism on the campus.

At VMI, Black cadets endure lynching threats, Klan memories and Confederacy veneration

“If someone had told me a year ago that today I’d be the superintendent of my alma mater, I would have told them they were crazy,” Wins said in a statement. “However, the interactions that I’ve had over the past six months with VMI’s outstanding cadets and dedicated faculty have been some of the most rewarding interactions of my career. The fact of the matter is I believe in the honor, integrity, civility, and sacrifice that we instill in our cadets. I’m excited to once again be a part of that and am looking forward to leading this next chapter of the Institute’s history.”

Wins, a former VMI basketball player, was selected for the permanent position over several other candidates. According to sources familiar with the search, some of the contenders included Ronald Bailey, a Black retired Marine lieutenant general who until recently had served as the vice president of external affairs at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee; David Furness, a White VMI alumnus and active-duty major general in the Marine Corps; and retired Army Maj. Gen. William Rapp, a White former commandant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Since Wins took the reins in November, he has been vocal about VMI’s need to be a welcoming space for all 1,700 cadets, 6 percent of whom are African American and 14 percent of whom are female.

During his tenure, the school has already made history: In late March, it selected Kasey Meredith, a junior from Johnstown, Pa., to serve during her senior year as the college’s first female regimental commander — the highest-ranking position in the corps of cadets.

The school, which receives more than $19 million in state funds, did not enroll Black students until 1968 or women until 1997 and has long celebrated its Confederate past.

When the college finally removed a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson in December after years of resistance by administrators and alumni, Wins praised the decision.

“VMI does not define itself by this statue and that is why this move is appropriate,” he said in a statement. “Our graduates embody the values of honor, respect, civility, self-discipline, and professionalism. This is how we will continue to be defined.”

In late January, Wins also scrapped VMI’s practice of publicly shaming expelled cadets by announcing their names during the college’s middle-of-the-night “drum out” ceremonies. Now the ritual no longer discloses the name of the expelled student.

Wins is also examining other reforms to its student-run honor system, which The Post revealed in December disproportionately expelled Black students for honor code violations between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020.

John Boland, the president of VMI’s Board of Visitors, praised how Wins has led the school since last fall, calling him “a leader whose dedication to the Institute’s mission and to the Corps of Cadets has endeared him to many during his brief time as interim superintendent.”

“There’s no question that Maj. Gen. Wins is the right person to preserve and advance VMI’s unique system of education moving forward,” Boland said in a statement.

Wins has encouraged students, staff and faculty members to participate in the independent investigation ordered by Northam and conducted by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg. Though the investigation has come under attack from alumni, students and parents, Wins promised all participants anonymity and pushed anyone interested to meet with the firm.

“An open and candid dialogue is vitally important to this process,” Wins said in February.

Wins himself recently sat with Barnes & Thornburg investigators for four hours, he said during a video call in April with graduates that is published on the college’s alumni agencies website. He told the alumni they discussed his observations on VMI “with respect to its culture, its climate and where I think VMI needs to go.”

“I wanted to ensure that I could get from the investigative team their commitment that they were looking at this thing with an unbiased lens and that they were going to be fair in their assessment,” he told the alumni on the call.

Shortly after Wins was appointed as interim superintendent in November, he addressed the corps in a speech that defended the school. He said he had read news accounts of racism on campus, “but unlike a lot of the critics out there, I do believe in this unique system of education. If there are things that need to be fixed, we’ll fix them. And we’ll fix them swiftly,” Wins told the cadets. “But VMI’s values — honor integrity, respect, civility and discipline — those things will remain unchanged. . . . Don’t let other folks come in and define the character and who we are. . . . External forces have decided to attack the reputation of the institute.”

Yet he was also critical of the students.

“Now mind you, we haven’t exactly helped ourselves. . . . Very little gets accomplished through social media,” he said, appearing to refer to the cadets’ popular use of an anonymous social media app called Jodel, which is filled with bigoted and misogynistic comments. “We’ve got to do all that we can to help ourselves so that the image and the reputation of VMI is sterling.”

Wins told the cadets he never experienced racism himself when he was a student 40 years ago but also said: “I have zero tolerance for racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia. Zero tolerance. It is antithetical to what VMI should be about.”