Northam Orders Independent Investigation Into VMI Charges

By Brian Carlton

October 20, 2020

VMI accused of racist practices for the second time in under four months.

RICHMOND-Has Virginia Military Institute eliminated racist policies as school officials promised this summer? That’ll be up to an independent investigator to decide. On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered an investigation into VMI after Black cadets and alumni came forward. Speaking to the Washington Post, they told of a place where lynching threats occured and faculty spoke openly about praising the Confederacy. 

That was enough for Gov. Northam, himself a 1981 graduate of the school. In a letter co-signed by 10 other state lawmakers, Northam wrote to VMI Board of Visitors President John Boland, outlining concerns over the school’s “ongoing structural racism”.  Those co-signers included Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring, Virginia Senate President Louise Lucas, House Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Torian, Senate Finance Committee Chair Janet Howell and Legislative Black Caucus Chair Lamont Bagby.

“As the nation’s oldest state-run military college, the Institute exalts the virtues of honor, sacrifice, dignity and service,” Northam wrote. “But it is clear these values do not extend to all students.” 

VMI’s culture as described in the Washington Post article is unacceptable, Northam said. He wrote that Virginians expect all schools to be inclusive and certainly not to praise an armed, racist rebellion from more than 100 years ago. When allegations were first raised during the summer, state officials listened as VMI officials promised to change. In his letter Monday night, Northam said it was too late to do that again. VMI’s staff had their chance to change on their own. Now the state plans to take action. 

Northam outlines upcoming actions

To begin, Northam said state officials want to see how bad the situation is at VMI. To that end, the General Assembly will allocate money out of the recently passed budget for an independent, third party review of the operation. 

“We intend to retain a non-partisan national organization to conduct this review,” Northam said. 

The group will investigate and compare VMI’s culture to other Virginia universities, with a report due by the end of the year. That way the General Assembly can take “any necessary legislative action in the 2021 session,” the letter states. 

While this review is going on, the Commonwealth’s Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Janice Underwood, and Secretary of Education Atif Qarni will meet with VMI’s Board of Visitors. They will go over needed changes to campus culture and what will happen if the recommendations are ignored. That includes potential adjustments to state funding provided to the university. Finally, the group by year’s end is to develop a diversity plan, which can be reviewed by the General Assembly in January. 

Northam said state officials support VMI’s stated purpose to produce leaders of character and integrity. But the allegations raise concerns that can’t be ignored, he added. 

“These latest allegations suggest that VMI leaders are not moving fast enough or embracing the fundamental commitment to diversity that Americans expect from every institution in the 21st century,” he wrote. 

Promises made, left unkept

All this comes after VMI Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III promised changes in July. At the time, 400 cadets and alumni asked for the school to create a commission and examine not just the traditions, but also the monuments and building names. Peay said a lot in a seven-page letter, telling alumni and cadets that he wanted to look toward the future. But there was a catch.

“I believe we all agree we want to erase any hint of racism at VMI, in our communities, and in our country,” Peay, himself a graduate of the VMI Class of ’62, said. “It is also very clear that the VMI community consists of passionate individuals with deeply held beliefs.”

While he promised to develop better ways of doing things, Peay rejected the call to remove a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson from the school. He also refused to consider renaming some of the buildings, which have Confederate ties or get rid of a monument to VMI cadets who helped Confederates fight in the Battle of New Market.

There are some similarities in what Peay promised in July and what the state will order. In that July letter, Peay promised to form a commission to tackle racism issues. He also promised to work with state officials to build a better school.

“Some of our African American cadets and alumni have expressed that parts of the VMI experience did not live up to the standards that it should have,” Peay said. “I am committed to addressing and fixing any areas of racial inequality at our school.”

It’s unclear how much progress Peay made on that plan between July and October. Dogwood reached out to VMI for comment, but we hadn’t heard back before presstime.

A need to move forward

Other lawmakers echoed Northam’s comments.

“The racist behavior reported at VMI is disgusting,” Attorney General Mark Herring said on Twitter. “I join Governor Northam, Speaker Filler-Corn and other VA leaders in taking action to stop it and change the culture that allows it. It’s unacceptable anywhere, especially at a public school, and not who we are as a Commonwealth.”

As of early Tuesday, the Board of Visitors had not responded to the letter. 

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