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Opinion/Editorial: VMI must address its culture

Opinion/Editorial: VMI must address its culture

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When a state report faults the Virginia Military Institute for failing to treat cadets equally despite race and gender, it’s not difficult to believe those allegations.

Several independent examinations of racism in the U.S. Armed Forces and their civilian support organizations find a long record of complaints — both formal and informal. And it’s suspected that the number of discrimination complaints filed by service members represents but a fraction of actual incidents.

And even the Pentagon admits to a “persistent and corrosive” problem with sexual assault and harassment across the spectrum of the services, a long-standing problem we’ve been following in this space for many years.

Given that background, gender- and race-based discrimination at a military training institute such as VMI is well within the realm of possibility.

And that’s before adding in VMI’s particular history of reverence for Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and all that it implies.

At the same time, when VMI supporters claim that the state investigation was not conducted dispassionately, we might also acknowledge that this is within the realm of possibility. As a culture and in government, we tend to ignore our most difficult problems until they fester and erupt in crisis — at which point we leap into action that may be more swift than it is sensible. And often, we also leap to conclusions.

What’s not arguable is that the state has the right to conduct such investigations — and to hold VMI accountable for living up to standards expected of it by the people of Virginia.

The Virginia Military Institute is a state-supported school. As such, it is under the state’s authority.

So when The Washington Post and, before it, The Roanoke Times published stories about the treatment received by Black cadets, Gov. Ralph Northam called for an investigation.

The effort was launched under the auspices of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which brought in an independent law firm, Barnes & Thornburg, to conduct the investigation.

Their report cites “racial slurs and jokes” that “contribute to an atmosphere of hostility toward minorities.”

Although race-based inequities were the initial rationale for the investigation, Barnes & Thornburg found reason to include gender-based discrimination as well.

“Although VMI has no explicitly racist or sexist policies that it enforces,” the report says, “the facts reflect an overall racist and sexist culture.”

The report faults VMI for failing to come to grips with a culture that leans too heavily on its association with the Jackson mythos and pays too little attention to the need for self-examination and change.

“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,” say the investigators.

To which VMI replied that cadets of color made up 23.4% of enrollment in 2020, up from 12.7% in 1992; and that people of color make up 11% of full-time, tenure-track faculty members. Those figures are better than can be produced by many historically white universities in Virginia.

VMI also said it is one of the highest producers of minority commissioned officers in the U.S. military.

The report also notes that VMI has made some changes to its systems, some of which occurred even as the investigation was underway. For instance, VMI now has a Black superintendent and a female commander of its Corps of Cadets.

It will take time to sift through all the implications of the report and more time to rebalance VMI’s structure.

But the state’s interest in launching such an effort is obvious, and the state’s authority for effecting change is clear. As a military organization, VMI surely understands the importance of chain of command — and its duty to obey its superiors’ orders.

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