The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VMI has tolerated ‘racist and sexist culture’ and must change, investigation finds

Members of the class of 2021 march to the Parade Ground at Virginia Military Institute for a change-of-command ceremony on May 14. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)

An independent investigation of the culture at Virginia Military Institute released Tuesday found a “racist and sexist culture,” fierce resistance to change, and a fear of retaliation among students and faculty who want to report bigotry or sexual misconduct to administrators.

“This investigation found that institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated, and left unaddressed at VMI. The racist and misogynistic acts and outcomes uncovered during this investigation are disturbing,” said the report, written by lawyers at the law firm Barnes & Thornburg, who were paid $1 million by the state for the probe. “Although VMI has no explicitly racist or sexist policies that it enforces, the facts reflect an overall racist and sexist culture.”

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

The report recommended requiring VMI, the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, to create a sweeping reform plan and to submit quarterly reports to the state on its progress. It also urged Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who graduated from VMI in 1981, and the General Assembly to appoint a committee with no ties to the school to evaluate those reports and address “any lack of substantial progress.”

Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), and other leaders in the General Assembly made it clear in a statement that they would not tolerate foot-dragging, issuing a veiled threat to the college if it fails to address its problems: “The Commonwealth will study this report carefully and then take appropriate action. VMI would be wise to do so as well. VMI is an agency of state government, and we will hold it accountable.”

VMI received more than $19 million in state funds for fiscal 2020-2021.

VMI’s superintendent, retired Army Maj. General Cedric T. Wins, said in a statement that since his arrival late last year, he has made it clear to everyone at the college that no discrimination of any kind will be tolerated.

“Recommendations from the Barnes & Thornburg report will be evaluated through the lens of the VMI mission and our unique method of education, and, where appropriate, be integrated into the One Corps-One VMI plan,” he said. Wins, who graduated from VMI in 1985, called it “an opportunity for the VMI community to come together as brother rats, fellow cadets, alumni, and friends to make an already special place even more special. We cannot do this as a community of factions. VMI has a long history of improvement. Now is no different. The Institute will move forward and will be better because of this chapter in our history.”

To compile the report, the law firm surveyed nearly 2,500 people in the VMI community and interviewed 385 cadets, officials, staff members and alumni, revealing a deep divide between Black cadets, who make up just 6 percent of the 1,700-student body, and their White classmates.

Half of Black students “strongly or somewhat agree” that the Lexington school suffers from a “culture of racial intolerance,” the survey revealed, while only 10 percent of White cadets said the same. Additionally, 42 percent of Black cadets said Black VMI students were discriminated against “a lot” — while only 4 percent of White students felt the same way.

By contrast, more than one White cadet insisted that the real issue at VMI is racism against Whites, leaving the impression, the report said, that VMI is a place “where African Americans experience racism but Caucasian cadets do not or choose not to see it.”

The report said racial slurs and racist jokes are “not uncommon” at VMI and are “at times excused by administrators based on a lack of diversity in the cadets’ upbringing.”

Many of those surveyed, including men, said VMI’s gender equity issues are worse than its racial equity issues. Misogyny is a major problem at VMI, which fought admitting women all the way to the Supreme Court before losing in 1996.

The investigation found that “sexual assault is prevalent at VMI,” with 14 percent of female cadets reporting that they had been sexually assaulted. Sixty-three percent of female cadets said that another cadet had confided that she or he had been sexually assaulted.

“Many female cadets reported a consistent fear of assault or harassment by their fellow male cadets,” the report said. They also “feel that assault complaints are not or will not be taken seriously by the VMI administration or that a cadet will suffer retaliatory consequences for reporting them.”

The report gave VMI credit for conducting “extensive” sexual assault training on campus, but noted that female students said “male cadets treat it as a joke and an opportunity for misogynistic humor, without consequence.”

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

Investigators found cadets of color — who made up 23 percent of VMI’s student body over the past decade — represented 41 percent of cadets dismissed for violating the school’s honor code, which bars students from lying, cheating, stealing or tolerating those who do.

In December, The Washington Post obtained data showing slightly more unequal results between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2020. During that period, while minorities made up 21 percent of the campus population, they represented 54 percent of students expelled after convictions by the student-run Honor Court.

While the investigation did not call for an end to VMI’s student-run honor system and found that most Honor Court cases “involve fair proceedings, follow documented procedures and produce defensible results,” it urged the school to conduct a “root-cause analysis” to determine why minorities are being disproportionately expelled. The report also urged the system to treat racist behavior and sexual misconduct with same seriousness as honor code violations. Students who hurl racial slurs or harass or assault women should not receive a lighter punishment than cadets who lie about getting help on their homework or where they went over the weekend, interviewees told the firm.

The president and the president-elect of VMI’s Board of Visitors said in a statement that the report’s findings on race and gender raised “serious allegations and are being treated as such.”

“VMI is not immune to the challenges all colleges face in this area, and there have been incidents on our campus which we have documented and shared as part of this investigation. Let us be clear though, this behavior has never been tolerated and, as an oversight board, we are committed to assuring every action is being taken to maintain a safe and welcoming environment for all at our school,” wrote John “Bill” Boland, the board president, and Thomas R. Watjen, the board’s president-elect.

But the report blasted the college for not cooperating fully with the investigation and for denying the existence of serious problems on the campus.

“VMI must address elements of its culture that contribute to an ‘us versus them’ mentality, including with respect to race and gender,” the report warned. “This culture includes VMI’s potent and ongoing resistance to change, denialism, secrecy, refusal of oversight, and suspicion of outsiders that creates a barrier to forward progress.

“The reaction to the investigation from the larger VMI community and the Institute itself demonstrates the effect of this problematic culture. The unusual amount of vitriol, criticism, condescension, and condemnation from many in the VMI community regarding the investigation has been alarming. Additionally, despite a pledge of cooperation, VMI’s leadership sought to control the investigation, the message, and the report’s findings.”

The report said that most of the first three months of the investigation “were wasted with disputes over access” to faculty and administrators. Some VMI staff members reached out on their own, but the investigators couldn’t send out invitations until March 3, nearly two months after their probe began. And even then, they were not “fully cleared by VMI to affirmatively reach out to faculty until March 30.”

The investigation was ordered by Northam and other state leaders after a Post story documented a litany of racist incidents on the campus.

But the 182-year-old college, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy, instantly pushed back against charges that the school fosters a racist climate. Boland, VMI’s Board of Visitors president, asserted in a letter to Northam that “systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”

Nevertheless, change at VMI began unfolding at a rapid clip. The college’s longtime superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned and was replaced with Wins, the first Black superintendent in VMI’s history. Wins decided that VMI would stop publicly shaming students expelled for honor code violations by announcing their names to all 1,700 cadets in middle-of-the-night “drum out” ceremonies. The school also removed a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, a former VMI professor and enslaver of six people, from outside the student barracks after years of resistance.

The school took much the same approach to the investigation of the campus’s racial climate, according to Barnes & Thornburg.

The firm reported in February that it was facing significant delays from VMI. The college didn’t want to allow its cadets or faculty members to be interviewed by the investigators without the presence of VMI attorneys or officials, making it less likely people would speak candidly, the law firm alleged. The school later backed off that demand, but officials and alumni still chafed at the review, which they viewed as tainted and biased. The school also said that it has repeatedly encouraged its students to speak with investigators and has provided them with a trove of documents.

One graduate from the class of 1979, Bob Morris, who also vied for the contract to investigate VMI, filed a lawsuit seeking to cancel the law firm’s contract and release documents related to the competition for the contract. (The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge last week.)

When the firm released an interim report in March that declared “it is and was a common experience to hear racial slurs among VMI cadets, including use of the n-word,” the college fumed behind the scenes.

Wins and Boland wrote a letter to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which was overseeing the investigation, criticizing the firm for producing reports that have either contained “little substantive information” or that were “full of misleading and sensationalized observations,” according to their correspondence. They contended the firm didn’t have the research or statistics to support the contention that it was a “common experience” to hear racial slurs on campus.

Even the timing of the report’s release has been a source of tension. The school wanted it in advance before its public release so officials could provide feedback. But Northam refused; his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said: “The best way to ensure its independence is to make sure the Institute — the subject of the investigation — sees this report once it is complete. No one other than the independent, third-party investigator will see this report before it is finalized, and that’s how it should be.”

Read more:

What Northam’s Black VMI schoolmates endured 40 years ago

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

VMI cadets attack Black students, women on anonymous chat app