VMI Superintendent Resigns After Report Uncovers Racism Allegations at School

VMI Needs a New Superintendent

File photo.

By Brian Carlton

October 26, 2020

Gen. Peay tendered his resignation early Monday, VMI officials said.

LEXINGTON-Virginia Military Institute needs a new superintendent. Early Monday, VMI Board of Visitors President John Boland announced that Gen. Peay tendered his resignation. 

“General Peay has served VMI as superintendent exceptionally well for more than 17 years,” Boland said in a statement to media. “General Peay is a great American, patriot and hero. He has profoundly changed our school for the better in all respects.” 

The resignation comes a week after Black cadets and alumni spoke to the Washington Post about allegations of racism. They told of a place where lynching threats occured and faculty spoke openly about praising the Confederacy. As a result, Gov. Ralph Northam, himself a 1981 graduate of the school, sent a letter to Boland, outlining several steps his administration would take in the coming months to address the problem. 

That includes an independent, third party review of VMI. Northam said a non-partisan, national organization will conduct the investigation. 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 review the information and take action as needed in the 2021 session. State officials had not selected that third party as of Monday.

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. 

VMI rejects the accusations

Speaking to Dogwood, VMI Director of Communications Bill Wyatt said the allegations in the Post didn’t represent the school’s culture. Instead, he argued that bad decisions by individuals created the incidents described, not VMI.

“The Washington Post erroneously portrayed the Virginia Military Institute as having a culture of hostility and insensitivity toward Black cadets. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Wyatt said. “The incidents detailed in the article, several of which are many years old, had more to do with an individual’s poor judgement than they do with the culture of the Institute. Each one, as is the case with any allegation of racism or discrimination, was investigated thoroughly and appropriate action was meted out in a timely fashion.” 

Wyatt said VMI officials would welcome the independent investigation, adding they had started one of their own this summer. That includes a review of nearly 30 operational elements, including traditions, ceremonies, culture and the relationship between cadets and alumni. 

“The way forward was thoroughly reviewed and discussed at the September 2020 Board of Visitors meeting and was endorsed as a path toward ensuring an Institute free from racism and discrimination,” Wyatt said. “Members of the Board of Visitors have asked for a progress update prior to their next meeting in January 2021.”

Students asked for changes

The summer incident Wyatt referred to involved 400 cadets and alumni asking for the school to make changes. They requested that a commission examine not just the traditions, but also the monuments and building names. In a seven-page letter in July, Peay told alumni and cadets 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, in the letter 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. By late last week, state officials felt it was time for a change.

In his resignation letter Monday, Peay said he met with Gov. Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer last Friday. Mercer made it clear “that the Governor and certain legislative leaders had lost confidence in my leadership as Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute,” Peay wrote. “Therefore, effective today, I hereby resign.”

What are VMI’s next steps? 

With Peay resigning, Boland said in Monday’s statement that the search for a replacement begins immediately. 

“We will stay focused on our mission of preparing citizen-soldiers from all walks of life,”  Boland said. “I ask that our alumni remain focused on the positive mission and support the Institute and Board as we secure a future in which the Institute continues to contribute in unique and vital ways to our nation and state.” 

School officials didn’t give a timeline as to when a replacement might be chosen.

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