General Assembly Approves $1 Million for VMI Investigation

VMI Needs a New Superintendent

File photo.

By Brian Carlton

November 9, 2020

Number will serve as a limit, not a beginning, lawmakers said.

RICHMOND-Virginia lawmakers gave Gov. Ralph Northam $1 million on Monday, fully funding his investigation into the Virginia Military Institute. Approval came despite opposition from members of both parties. Some argued that the idea went too far, while others said it didn’t go far enough. 

“I just voted against allowing for $1 million set aside from our budget to perform an investigation of Virginia Military Institute’s systemic racism,” Del. Ibraheem Samirah wrote right after the vote on Twitter. “I believe that this problem is not just that of VMI refusing to investigate, but of a large majority of schools in Virginia.” 

Samirah (D-Fairfax) pointed to his bill HB12 from this year’s regular session. It would have established a department to receive, investigate and resolve discrimination complaints from any school. That way you’re creating a long-term solution, he argued, not just a one-time band-aid. No other lawmaker signed on to the bill and it died in the Committee on Education. 

“I firmly believe that if we want to divest from systems & their agencies that don’t improve public safety & invest in those that do, we can’t be throwing more money instead of fixing the problem at its core,” Samirah said. 

Instead of giving $1 million for an investigation, he wanted to take it out of the $20 million already allotted this year to VMI. 

Republicans in the House and Senate also opposed the idea, but for different reasons. 

“I think this is a dangerous precedent for our political leaders to substitute their judgement for [the] board of visitors,” Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said.

Cox,  a potential 2021 candidate for governor, said he agrees the alleged incidents at VMI need to be investigated. But he’s been disappointed with how the issue has been handled up to this point. 

“You don’t order an investigation and then kick out the superintendent,” Cox said. “I just don’t have a lot of confidence in an independent investigation from this administration.” 

House Sets The Budget

The $1 million is a limit, not a guarantee, explained Del. Luke Torian (D-Prince William). 

“[This] does not mean the governor will spend the entire $1 million of general funds [set aside],” Torian said. 

Instead, it’s a budget for the administration. They can spend up to that point but no further. 

The money will be spent on an independent, third party review of VMI’s culture. In October, Black cadets and alumni spoke to the Washington Post about allegations of racism at the school. They told of a place where lynching threats occured and faculty spoke openly about praising the Confederacy. As a result, Northam, himself a 1981 graduate of VMI, sent a letter to the school’s Board of Visitors, outlining several steps his administration would take in the coming months to address the problem. 

That includes the review, as 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. 

In the wake of that letter, VMI’s superintendent Gen. Peay resigned. He said it was clear the administration had lost faith in him. Meanwhile, the Board of Visitors made several changes to the school over the last few weeks. They agreed to relocate the statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson off-campus. In addition, the group voted to create a permanent diversity officer at the school, as well as a permanent diversity and inclusion committee for the Board of Visitors.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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