At least a half-dozen faculty members, staffers and at least one cadet at the state-supported college in Lexington have arranged interviews with the investigators, according to a VMI faculty member who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Earlier this month, Barnes & Thornburg released a progress report in which it complained that a dispute over lawyers had delayed its work and was a threat to “the independence and effectiveness” of its inquiry.
After one state lawmaker suggested that VMI could lose some of its $19.3 million of state funding if it did not cooperate, the college’s interim superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, released a statement encouraging students and teachers to come forward. He shared a designated email and phone number for the firm’s investigators. Pledging the college’s commitment to confidentiality, he promised that all members of the VMI community “will be treated equitably and without fear of retaliation at every stage of this vital process.”
Afterward, “the issue of whether VMI would have lawyers present in the interviews was gone,” said the VMI faculty member. “Nobody has a fear of retribution to speak with the law firm. But before Wins’s email, people did wonder, ‘How am I going to talk with them without getting in trouble?’ ”
A second VMI teacher who arranged an interview with investigators said, “I have the impression from the firm that they’ve talked to quite a lot of people, especially faculty. I felt comfortable speaking freely. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but it was a relief to talk about things.”
VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt said in a statement that faculty members are free to have their own attorneys present for their interviews. He added that if a faculty member also works in a “managerial role,” the school will offer the person a chance to meet with a VMI attorney and have that lawyer present for the interview.
“A faculty member’s decision whether to seek guidance from personal counsel and/or VMI’s counsel is theirs alone to make and will be kept confidential by the Institute,” he wrote.
On Friday afternoon, the VMI Alumni Board Presidents emailed the school community, offering lawyers at no cost for alumni or cadets who participate in the interviews. The email said that graduates could have free access to the Alumni Agencies’ lawyers at the McGuireWoods firm who would “offer representation during the interview.”
The email also said that current cadets who want their own representation could have access to “a group of prominent lawyers (who also happen to be graduates of the Institute)” on a pro bono basis. “These attorneys can help cadets prepare for their interview, understand the interview process, and participate in the interview at the cadet’s discretion,” the email said. “Of course, cadets may also seek guidance from their own counsel.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other state lawmakers ordered the investigation in October after Black cadets and alumni described disturbing incidents of racism to The Post.
In early January, the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia, which is overseeing the investigation, awarded the contract to Barnes & Thornburg, a law firm with experience representing school systems and colleges and universities. That decision is now the subject of a lawsuit filed Feb. 11 in Richmond Circuit Court by a consulting firm run by a VMI alum.
Bob Morris, the president and CEO of Center for Applied Innovation, which vied for the contract, contends Barnes & Thornburg didn’t adhere to the bid’s requirements and that it should have been denied. His company’s lawsuit seeks the cancellation of Barnes & Thornburg’s inquiry and the disclosure of records related to the contract’s competition.
Voice and email messages for Morris, a member of VMI’s Class of 1979, were not returned.
Peter Blake, the director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and Karen Smith, a Barnes & Thornburg spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The investigators have also came under attack from alumni. The college’s alumni board presidents — along with John P. Jumper, a retired four-star Air Force General and former VMI Board of Visitors president — accused Barnes & Thornburg of asking the school to “suspend the VMI Honor Code” for cadets interviewed by the firm. The school’s spokesman, Bill Wyatt, also made the same allegation to the Roanoke Times.
The reaction among VMI alumni online was swift and fierce, with graduates in private VMI Facebook groups blasting the firm and citing the alleged request as evidence of the investigation’s biases.
According to a document in Morris’s firm’s lawsuit, a Barnes & Thornburg attorney in December asked the state council “whether VMI would be willing at the outset to consider amnesty for any honor code violation or other infraction to anyone who spoke with us as part of our investigation.” The attorney added: “From our experience in other campus inquiries, this is a good tool to address the concern that cadets or other individuals may be hesitant to speak with us, and so we wanted to bring it to your attention.”
Smith, the law firm spokeswoman, said it’s the firm’s policy not to comment on “ongoing matters.”
Wyatt, the college’s spokesman, declined to clarify the specifics of the firm’s request.
“Rather than rehashing those conversations, Maj. Gen. Wins is focused on ensuring that the VMI community continues their cooperation with the review team at every turn,” he said in a statement.
Investigators want to examine years of disciplinary records related to students accused of honor code violations. In December, The Post found that the college’s student-run Honor Court system — which prosecutes cadets facing such accusations — expels Black students at a disproportionately high rate.
On Friday, a former Honor Court president from the Class of 2012 posted a letter on a private cadet-and-alumni Facebook group that he and 38 other former Honor Court presidents sent to Wins and the college’s Board of Visitors, defending the system’s core elements, including its one-strike-and-you’re-out expulsions and the school’s drum-out ceremonies to publicly shame expelled cadets.
“This is a point of pride, not of shame, and we should defend it,” the authors wrote.
Northam, who went to VMI and served as its Honor Court president in 1981, did not sign the letter.
“My big thing is equal treatment for all people,” said one Black cadet willing to speak to investigators as long as it’s confidential. “I want to also talk about how we glorify some of these old Confederate officers and that we should emphasize other graduates who didn’t serve in the Confederacy.”
A second student who is also Black said he plans on reaching out to the law firm to arrange an interview. A professor recently approached him on campus and said he’d already talked to the firm and encouraged him to do the same thing.
“He was saying you should do it,” said the cadet, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “It’s time for people to spread the truth.”