The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VMI, under fire for expelling Black cadets, considers changes to prized honor system

The entrance to Virginia Military Institute's P. Wesley Foster, Jr. Stadium. (Heather Rousseau/For The Washington Post)

In an email to thousands of students, faculty, graduates and parents earlier this month, Virginia Military Institute’s interim superintendent defended its one-strike-and-you’re out honor code as “a national model.”

But in private conversations with faculty and graduates, retired Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins is raising questions about VMI’s student-run Honor Court, which The Washington Post revealed in December expels Black students at a disproportionately high rate.

Wins, who was appointed VMI’s first Black leader amid a state-ordered investigation into racism at the country’s oldest state-supported military college, discussed the Honor Court during a recent virtual listening session with more than a dozen faculty members. He asked whether the honor code — backed by a single-sanction system that expels and publicly shames cadets convicted of violations — had “value or lack of value” and whether they had “concerns” about the way the Honor Court operates, according to a VMI faculty member familiar with the call. He cited The Post’s reporting during the conversation.

A Black VMI cadet was threatened with a lynching, then with expulsion

In a recent interview, Wins said he doesn’t intend to change the honor code mandating that “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” Instead, he is evaluating the student-run justice system that enforces that code.

“I think the system requires a review,” said Wins, who repeated that assessment at a VMI Board of Visitors meeting Friday. “You want to make sure that the system, as it was intended to operate, has not kind of fallen off path or deviated or strayed from its overall objectives and its intent.”

Elected by the student body, VMI’s Honor Court operates in secrecy, investigating and prosecuting anyone suspected of an honor code violation. It has the power to enlist cadets to spy on classmates, who can be convicted by non-unanimous juries and then shamed with middle-of-the-night “drum-out” ceremonies announcing their names to the entire 1,700-member corps of cadets.

Wins told The Post that he is considering two changes: requiring unanimous juries for convictions and barring the Honor Court from announcing the names of expelled cadets during drum-out ceremonies.

Those changes would be among the most significant since the mid-1990s, when VMI first required Honor Court cases to be heard by randomly selected student juries.

Pressed on whether he’d eliminate the use of student spies, Wins said: “I think it’s something we need to look at. I think I’d be interested in understanding the extent to which it happens. If it happens, I’d be interested in taking a look at the circumstances that build towards it.”

VMI’s honor system ­is a matter of righteous pride, a way the 181-year-old Lexington school sells itself. “The system does not recognize degrees of honor,” VMI’s website declares. “If [new cadets’] commitment is not complete, their stay at the Institute may be short.”

The honor code has existed since the campus’s “earliest days,” according to the college. Its single-sanction system, which differs dramatically from those now used at the federal service academies, has been in effect since at least 1925.

Acquittals at VMI are rare. Since the 2015-2016 academic year, 63 Honor Court cases have resulted in 55 convictions, the school said last month.

The Post revealed startling disparities in those being punished: Between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020, Black cadets represented about 43 percent of all students expelled because of honor code violations, even though they made up about 6 percent of the student body during that period; students of color comprised about 54 percent of the total even though they made up about 21 percent of the campus population.

A vocal group of prominent VMI graduates sent Wins a memo on Jan. 15, saying The Post’s findings suggest that the school’s honor system “is in need of serious reform.”

The graduates — the same foursome who helped lead a campaign last year to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson — said the school should consider getting rid of non-unanimous juries and eliminate or drastically reduce the Honor Court’s reliance on student spies, known at VMI as “spooks.”

“This age old practice undermines cohesion and trust among cadets, exacerbates the racial divide in the Corps, and creates power disparities between cadets who are given such grave tasks and those who are not,” they wrote. “Frankly, having secret police is just plain un-American, so please end this vicious cycle.”

The graduates — Michael Purdy, a Google attorney and Navy Reserve veteran; George “Donnie” Hasseltine, a tech firm chief security officer and retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; Conor Powell, a freelance journalist; and Shah Rahman, a Dallas civil engineer — also asked Wins to release data for the past 50 years that would show the extent to which minorities and athletes have been convicted by the school’s Honor Court compared with White students.

But Quinn Adams, who graduated from VMI in 2012 and served as the Honor Court’s president, defended the system as fair and unbiased.

“It is a race-neutral process that is executed by people of multiple races and by people of different genders,” said Adams, 30. “The cases go through multiple levels of review before a trial. There have been members of the Honor Court who’ve been drummed out for violations. We all adhere to the same set of rules.”

The debate is part of a cultural upheaval engulfing VMI, which received about $19.3 million in state funding for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Virginia also contributed $33 million for a new $44 million aquatics center, expected to be completed in about two years.

Although Wins said he was open to discussion about altering VMI’s single-sanction system, his intent is to preserve it.

“To alter that with a sliding scale of whether or not you lied and to what degree, I think, just lowers the standard,” Wins said. “As we develop and grow these young men and women . . . we send them out into a world where there are consequences for doing things that breach trust.”

None of the country’s federal service academies automatically expel students if they’re convicted of violating their honor codes, nor do VMI’s chief rivals, Virginia Tech and The Citadel in South Carolina — senior military col­leges that offer a corps of cadets and the chance to commission into the armed services.

At the Naval Academy, the majority of students convicted by its Brigade Honor Board are not expelled, according to Jana Vavasseur, a Naval Academy commander who advises the midshipmen overseeing the school’s “honor concept.”

Instead, if they admit to cheating on a test or plagiarizing a paper and express contrition, they participate in a four- to six-month remediation program, working with a Naval Academy officer “to deconstruct what happened,” Vavasseur said. “They’ll select books and articles to read, and the midshipman will have to keep a detailed journal.”

She said the Naval Academy used to lean more heavily on expulsions but realized the approach deprived it of teaching opportunities.

“The make-it-or-you-don’t-make-it culture didn’t fit with the mission of developing midshipmen,” she said. “It was just judging them.”

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point offers a similar reprieve for cadets who confess within 24 hours of their violation and who don’t have a previous history of honor code breaches or other misconduct, according to its website. They lose rank and privileges and must enroll in a leadership development course.

Since 1996, West Point superintendents have opted for punishments less severe than expulsion for more than half of the school’s honor violations. The vast majority of the 73 cadets who cheated on an online calculus exam in May — West Point’s biggest cheating scandal in decades — are participating in the rehabilitation program.

At The Citadel, VMI’s biggest athletic rival, most students convicted of honor code violations are expelled. But sometimes, The Citadel’s president allows cadets to enter into a leniency program, in which they work with faculty members to reflect on their transgressions.

“If we can identify students early in their college careers who have potential, is it right to automatically expel them?” said Stephen Grenier, a Citadel associate director who helps cadets accused of honor code violations navigate the school’s Honor Court. “We’re in the business of creating principled leaders. I’ve seen the results, and the cadets are better for it.”

Another key difference: VMI allows cadets to be convicted even if two of the seven jurors vote to acquit. At The Citadel, the 10-person juries must be unanimous for a student to be found in violation.

Of The Citadel’s 50 honor code trials since the fall of 2016, only 28 have resulted in both guilty verdicts and expulsions. Another six cadets were found in violation, but they were put into the school’s leniency program and allowed to stay; and 16 were acquitted.

Perhaps the biggest break between VMI and the other military academies is the notorious drum-out ceremony.

After an expulsion at VMI, Honor Court officers and band members pounding drums gather in the barracks at 3:30 a.m., waking everyone. The Honor Court president marches around the courtyard, and, according to the drum-out ritual’s script, then declares the expelled cadet’s name “shall never be mentioned within the walls of the Institute again.”

Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985 and was a star basketball player, defended the ceremony as a reminder of the cadet commitment to integrity.

“The first drum-out for me as a [first-year] rat was probably like it is for most cadets, right? It’s kind of intimidating,” he recalled. “But I knew what was at stake and I had committed that I was going to do everything within my power not to jeopardize the opportunity that was given.”

But he said the school is consulting with the Virginia state attorney general’s office about whether publicly naming the dismissed cadet violates federal privacy law.

A U.S. Education Department spokesman said he could not say whether VMI’s drum-out ceremony is at odds with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The spokesman said a drummed-out student would have to file a timely complaint with the agency. Then the department could determine whether the ritual is a privacy breach.”

“I am not passing judgment on VMI; that’s something they cherish, but I can’t imagine something like that here at the Naval Academy,” Vavasseur said. “If someone cheats and is kicked out, that person is still a human being. I don’t think public shaming is necessarily good for anyone — not just for the accused but for the health of the rest of their organization.”

For those who teach at VMI, the student-run justice system can be uncomfortable.

One faculty member who has reported cadets for honor code violations said VMI’s Honor Court system lacks due process and consistency. Sometimes, the professor said, academic department heads will greenlight accusations to go forward to the students running the Honor Court; other times, they won’t.

The teacher added that the single-sanction system is too draconian, especially since the school has been disproportionately expelling minority students.

“We advertise the Honor Court as something fair and level, but that’s not what’s really happening,” said the professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal from the VMI administration. “It’s really inequitable. We need to find remediation programs.”

Students caught plagiarizing shouldn’t necessarily be kicked out, the professor said.

“When I ask students whether something is plagiarism or not, they often don’t realize what plagiarism is,” the professor said. “Often, it’s not intentional. And to throw them out because they don’t really understand seems ridiculous.”

A second faculty member who has dealt with the Honor Court said the single-sanction system can deprive the school of opportunities to change bad behavior and mold student character. The teacher said dismissals are appropriate for some violations — such as cheating on exams — but other infractions deserve lesser punishments.

“These are teaching moments, especially when it comes to plagiarism,” said the second professor, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution from the administration.

The single-sanction system can be especially harsh on students accused of committing nonacademic, seemingly minor infractions.

On April 1, 2019, when she was a freshman, Jony Ursua was “arrested” by the Honor Court. Her crime: She’d filled out a special permission form that allows students to leave campus for the night and spend time with relatives, a guardian, a VMI staff member or parents of other cadets, according to her Honor Court charging documents.

Ursua said she’d typed on the form that a family friend was taking her out. But she didn’t let the school know she was also spending time with an ex-cadet whom she was dating.

Later, when her roommates asked who she spent her off-campus time with, she initially didn’t mention the date. Ultimately, she confessed to her friends. Then, she said, one of her roommates alerted the Honor Court.

Ursua also was charged with failing to turn herself in quickly enough to VMI’s commandant staff, and for “[lying] to her roommates about who she was with,” her charging documents say.

Ursua told The Post that she thought mentioning only the family friend on the permission form satisfied the school rules, since the friend was the one who was going to pick her up at campus. She didn’t think she needed to say she was also going to see a romantic interest.

“I was just a freshman, and I didn’t have a full understanding of the regulations around the permits,” she said. “And I didn’t tell my roommates about the date because it wasn’t their business. It was about personal privacy.”

Rather than face the Honor Court trial, Ursua withdrew from VMI — a decision that amounted to a guilty plea and an expulsion from the school. Ursua figured a full-blown trial wasn’t worth it. Even if she would have prevailed, she said she was losing sleep worrying about the case. She struggled to concentrate and figured she probably would bomb her final exams.

She was dismissed April 7, six days after her arrest.

“Per the VMI Honor System, you should no longer return to the VMI Post,” her letter of expulsion read. “We hope this interruption in your formal education will be rapidly overcome. Please be assured that we wish you every success in your transition and your future.”

Ursua, an immigrant from the Philippines who speaks English as a second language, said she lost a scholarship that would have paid for her final three years of college.

“My plan after VMI was to commission or work at the CIA or NSA,” said Ursua, who now attends Old Dominion University. “I’m getting grants now for college, but I’ll need to take out loans.”

Shortly after her dismissal, a VMI classmate texted her and told her the entire student body had been woken early that morning.

The friend broke the news.

“I got drummed out,” Ursua said.

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