Report tells of sexual assault, racism at Virginia military institute

The Virginia Military Institute 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, put together by an independent law firm at the request of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, states that “racial slurs and jokes are not uncommon” and “contribute to an atmosphere of hostility toward minorities.”

The report also said that sexual assault is prevalent yet inadequately addressed at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college. A survey found that 14% of female cadets reported being sexually assaulted, while 63% said that 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 states. “Although VMI has no explicitly racist or sexist policies that it enforces, the facts reflect an overall racist and sexist culture.”

The report notes that VMI has begun to make changes. But it also says 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.

VMI’s first Black superintendent, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, said in a statement that the school has no place for racism and sexism. He said 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 highlighted 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.”

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