'By White Men, for White Men': Report Blasts VMI for Racial Slurs, Sexual Assault, Confederacy Reverence

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Members of the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets march out of the barracks past cannons.
Members of the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets march out of the barracks past cannons during a change of command parade and ceremony on the parade grounds at the school in Lexington, Va., on May 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A scathing investigation into the culture of the Virginia Military Institute released Tuesday found severe racial and gender problems, including an "atmosphere of hostility towards minorities;" regular use of racial slurs and jokes; widespread sexual assault; and "outdated [and] idealized" reverence for the Confederacy.

The report, which was ordered by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and commonwealth lawmakers last October and conducted by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg, found that problems at the nearly 182-year-old public military college run deep. For a long time, the report adds, the school has been unwilling to take a hard look at itself -- or even admit it has a problem.

"The Virginia Military Institute, founded in 1839, is a historically important institution that has produced generations of respected citizen soldiers and leaders," the report begins. "VMI has also traditionally been run by white men, for white men."

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VMI has been unwilling to change or even question whether it should do so, which has left it lagging far behind other military schools, the report states.

"If VMI refuses to think critically about its past and present, and to confront how racial and ethnic minorities and women experience VMI, it will remain a school for white men," it adds.

Perceptions of whether there even is a racial climate problem at VMI vary wildly depending on someone's ethnicity, the report found. For example, half of Black cadets strongly or somewhat agreed that VMI has a culture of racial intolerance, and 42% felt that Black cadets were often discriminated against there.

But only 10% of White cadets believed the school is racially intolerant, and only 4% felt Black cadets were discriminated against at VMI, the report states.

In interviews, some White cadets "insisted that the real racial issue at VMI is racism against whites."

"These responses and perceptions paint a picture of a VMI where African Americans experience racism but Caucasian cadets do not or choose not to see it," according to the report.

VMI's superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, pledged to enact a plan to root out institutional racism and intolerance at the school; improve diversity, equity and inclusion there; and work to fix its culture over the long term.

"There is no place at VMI for racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or any other type of discrimination," said Wins, who is Black, in a message to the VMI community. "During my time as superintendent, the Institute will be a place where each and every member of the Corps of Cadets, faculty, staff and alumni feels a part of the VMI legacy regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality or orientation."

In a statement about the investigation, VMI's Board of Visitors said, "These are serious allegations and are being treated as such."

Board President John Boland and President-elect Thomas Watjen, both VMI grads, said the school has already been taking steps to improve things. They added that the board is studying the report and will develop a plan of action.

The report states that VMI's response is lacking when cadets are reported for racial slurs or jokes. Administrators sometimes excuse those who use slurs by saying they weren't brought up in a diverse environment, it explains.

Black cadets -- several of whom reported frequently hearing the N-word or racialized stereotypes from White cadets -- were not the only ones who bore the brunt of slurs. The report said Indian and Asian cadets also told investigators they were called racial slurs.

The Washington Post last year published stories about lynching threats and other racial harassment at VMI, including a photo of Commandant of Cadets Col. William Wanovich posing at a 2017 Halloween party with cadets wearing a border wall costume labeled "Trump's Wall" and "No Cholos Allowed." In January, the school announced that Wanovich would retire at the end of the academic year.

Investigators also found that "VMI maintains an outdated, idealized reverence for the Civil War and the Confederacy." Although the school has tried to address this recently, Civil War-era traditions are still prominent.

Some members of the school's community argue that Confederate traditions are part of its history and should not be "erased," the report states, adding that they do not appreciate or accept that those celebrations offend many Black people, including members of VMI's community.

The celebration of the Confederacy is also one-sided, the report said. Minorities at VMI are sometimes not given the same opportunities to celebrate holidays or other anniversaries significant to them, "and there is almost no representation of other military or civil rights iconography on post."

Cadets who are minorities also make up a disproportionate percentage of those who are dismissed due to honor code violations. When individual cases are looked at in isolation, the report states, the proceedings are fair, follow procedures and produce results that can be defended.

However, 41% of the cadets dismissed since 2011 were people of color, the report found, while those cadets make up just 23% of the corps.

The report said the school's honor code and honor court should not be eliminated. But it advised VMI's superintendent to study those statistics and revise training and procedures to figure out why these disparities exist and to make the processes more equitable.

Multiple cadets, alumni and faculty told investigators that VMI has a culture of "silence, fear and intimidation," particularly when it comes to reporting issues that could put the school or its leadership in a bad light.

Some VMI administrators went so far as to discourage sexual assault victims from reporting their assaults, the report said.

VMI officials even tried to stymie investigators from learning some negative information, the report adds. VMI tried to, and sometimes did, put the college's attorneys in the room with interviewees "under the guise of legal representation, knowing the attorney's presence would chill or limit the candor of the interviewee."

Sexual assault is prevalent at VMI but is not adequately addressed, according to the report. An anonymous, online survey found 14% of female cadets said they had been sexually assaulted at VMI; 63% said a fellow student had told them they had been sexually assaulted while a cadet.

Female cadets commonly reported "a consistent fear of assault or harassment" by male students. Some procedures at the school -- such as cadets' inability to lock their own doors -- worsen the problem, the report states.

And female cadets often said they feel VMI doesn't or would not take their assault complaints seriously, or that they will face retaliation if they report incidents. The report notes that Virginia law makes it illegal for a university to punish a student for drugs or alcohol when such use comes to light during a sexual assault investigation -- but VMI is exempt from that rule.

Extensive sexual assault training at the school is treated by male cadets as a chance to make misogynistic jokes "without consequence," the report states.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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