Report tells of sexual assault, racism at VMI; Board of Visitors responds

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LEXINGTON, Va. (AP/WFXR) — The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) has tolerated and failed to address institutional racism and sexism and must be held accountable for making changes, according to a state-sanctioned report released Tuesday.

The 145-page report — which can be viewed below — put together by an independent law firm at the request of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, stated that, “racial slurs and jokes are not uncommon” and “contribute to an atmosphere of hostility toward minorities.”

The institution’s Superintendent, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, is the first African American to hold the position. He’s been in the role for six months.

In an interview monitored by another VMI representative, Wins told WFXR, “I think people come to these situations, whether its an academic institution, a work environment – They come with their perspective…We have to make sure that our cadets, in this particular case female cadets when it comes to sexual assault trust that the leadership is going to take action, and then it’s on us as leaders to understand that those types of behaviors will not be tolerated…What I think we have to do now is review the report and understand what those actual items are in the report and figure out how much of it we’re already doing and what more needs to be done.”

The report also says that sexual assault is prevalent yet inadequately addressed at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college.

In the report, many of those who responded say the gender-equity issues are worse than the issues with race.

A total of 14-percent of female cadets reported being sexually assaulted while at VMI and 63-percent said a fellow cadet had told them that he or she was a victim of sexual assault.

A racial disparity also exists among cadets who have been dismissed by the school’s student-run honor court, the report stated. Cadets of color represent 23% of the corps, but make up 41% of those dismissed since 2011.

“The racist and misogynistic acts and outcomes uncovered during this investigation are disturbing,” the report stated. “Although VMI has no explicitly racist or sexist policies that it enforces, the facts reflect an overall racist and sexist culture.”

The report does indicate that VMI has started to make changes, but also said that VMI “will likely follow through on its promised reforms only if it is forced to do so.”

The report follows a months-long probe ordered by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and other state officials after The Washington Post reported that Black cadets and alumni faced “relentless racism.”

The Post’s October story described threats of lynching as well as a white professor reminiscing in class about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership. The newspaper cited interviews with more than a dozen current and former students of color at the prestigious school.

Independent law firm Barnes & Thornburg conducted the investigation. An interim report released in March documented responses from students, faculty and alumni about witnessing or experiencing racism and sexism.

According to Wins, the school has no place for racism and sexism. He said in a statement there is “always room for improvement” and has developed an action plan following “deep dives” into VMI’s policies.

Wins said that the report’s recommendations will be “evaluated through the lens of the VMI mission and our unique method of education, and, where appropriate, be integrated.”

“VMI has a long history of improvement. Now is no different,” Wins said. “The Institute will move forward and will be better because of this chapter in our history.”

VMI was founded in 1839 in Lexington, a historic town in western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The school educated Generals George Patton and George Marshall. But it’s also indelibly tied to the nation’s history of racism and sexism.

A prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who taught at the school, wasn’t taken down until December. VMI didn’t accept African Americans until 1968 or accept women until after a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In anticipation of the report’s release, VMI released a statement acknowledging incidents of racism and said that the school “cannot fulfill its mission of producing educated and honorable men and women if it allows racism or bias to go unchecked.”

In the statement, VMI highlights diversity and inclusion efforts, such as the Jackson statue’s removal and the board voting in Wins in April.

It said that enrollment of cadets of color rose from 12.7% in 1992 to 23.4% in 2020, and that people of color make up 11% of full-time, tenure-track faculty members. The school also said it is one of the highest producers of minority commissioned officers in the U.S. military.

The school said that it formed a committee in October focused on diversity, equity and inclusion and that it will soon hire its first chief diversity officer and create a cadet-led cultural awareness training program.

VMI also pushed back against some of the news coverage.

“(W)hatever work lies before us — the ‘clear and appalling culture’ of ongoing institutional racism attributed to us at the outset of this investigation is simply inaccurate,” the school said. “Like many colleges and institutions across our country, there is much that can — and will be — done to continue to identify and combat incidents of discrimination in all its forms.”

VMI’s Board of Visitors released an official statement on the issuance of the report.

“The Board of Visitors received a copy today of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s review into allegations of racism and gender issues at VMI. These are 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.

During the time this investigation has been ongoing, VMI has been busy taking action on many of the concerns that were identified earlier last year. While there is more to be done, these recent changes follow a history of taking steps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the Institute, and we expect to continue to do so.

From the start of this inquiry, we have been told by the governor and others on his staff that the report would be turned over to the Board of Visitors for our response. We are in the process of studying the report and will be developing an appropriate plan of action which is consistent with VMI’s mission and method of education. To that point, we are extremely confident in the direction set by Superintendent Major General Wins, and he has our full support as we navigate through these challenging times.

We remain steadfast in our belief that there has never been a greater need for the type of leaders produced by VMI. We are very proud of the 347 graduates who received their diplomas recently, and the many more that will follow, and confident that they will continue to make a mark on this world.”

John William Boland ’73                                                Thomas R. Watjen ‘76
President                                                                                             President-elect

Northam has also commented on the findings of the report.

“Today, the Commonwealth and VMI received the highly detailed report examining the culture at the oldest state-supported military college in the United States. 

The investigation found that institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated, and too often left unaddressed. 

While VMI has taken incremental steps forward since this review began, much more is needed. The question is whether VMI is willing to acknowledge this reality. 

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.”

Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA)

View a copy of the full report below.

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