Q&A: VMI’s new superintendent on report that says school has been ‘run by White men, for White men.’

By: - June 2, 2021 12:02 am

Cadets listen as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute on October 8, 2012 in Lexington. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Virginia Military Institute’s superintendent says he’s not surprised by the findings in a law firm’s scathing report released Tuesday that concluded the school long tolerated institutional racism and sexism.

But he pushed back at assertions that leaders of the 180-year-old school were unwilling to change.

The Virginia Mercury interviewed Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins about the investigation — ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam and funded by state lawmakers last year —  describing the school as being traditionally “run by White men, for White men.”

Wins, the first Black leader in the school’s history, has been leading the institute since November. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Mercury: This is a far-reaching investigation and you’re relatively new to this role. Of the findings, personal accounts and other details it unearthed, did anything in particular stop you, surprise you or otherwise stand out?

Wins: Nothing really surprised me. Perhaps some of the reported statistics that the investigation provided — we’ll have to do a little deeper dive into those in terms of where they came from. But many of the recommendations and findings are consistent with my 45-day assessment and my six-month effort to produce a unified action plan that will move forward to make VMI better.

The report goes into a lot of specifics, but the broad conclusion from investigators is that “institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated and left unaddressed at VMI.” You’re an alum and now you’re the school’s first Black superintendent, does that match your experience, past and present, with the school?

Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins

What it reflects to me is that VMI is not immune to the ills of society and has similar incidents of racist and sexist acts that a lot of other colleges and universities have. What it does is it gives me some resolve to be committed to defining a stance we have on it, how it is inconsistent and incompatible with what we’re trying to do in the development of young men and women who we want to go out and lead and succeed. And to be sure that folks understand that I take the approach of having zero tolerance for those types of things.

One of the big takeaways for investigators — and it sounds like you don’t necessarily fall into this category — was that VMI leaders perceive “no issues or reason to change.” Is that a perspective you’ve encountered in your time with the school?

We’ve had a lot of constructive discussions; I’ve not encountered folks that are unwilling to change. I think what they need and what they require is some leadership to point the direction and give them some clear guidance in the direction we should be going.

Last year, the chair of VMI’s board of visitors said, “Systemic racism does not exist here.” Do you agree with that assessment?

I think he has made the statement in the past. But I think the statement released by the board Tuesday certainly is a recognition that VMI is not immune to the ills of society and is reflective of incidents of racist and sexist behavior that many other colleges and universities have experienced.

That’s the second time you referenced that these problems aren’t unique to VMI and the report actually notes that school leaders would often respond that these problems exist at all schools. The investigators wrote that reaction is detrimental to the school and would appear to be inconsistent with the institution’s motto of “don’t do ordinary.”

I think that we have to endeavor on a continuous basis to root those incidents out. One is unacceptable in my view. So we have to be consistent, we have to go into this clear-eyed with a full understanding of the problems that exist at VMI. I think personally, I’m very appreciative of the VMI graduates who raised their concerns and brought us to this moment. And I want them certainly to know that their contribution will help us build a stronger VMI and that I’m encouraging them and would like them to be a part of the process. So no, we’re not going to rest to think that being ordinary is accepting of sexist and racist behavior.

The Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. (NBC12)

The report also delves into sexism and sexual assault. One particularly jarring account describes an assault victim approaching a member of the commandant’s staff and being told, if you can’t handle sexual assaults, you should not be at VMI. That staff member, according to the report, declined to be interviewed. Is VMI aware of this incident and is the staff member still employed by the school?

So I’m not aware of any quote attributed to a staff member of that nature, so I’ll have to look at the report and see what it says and if it identifies the staff member, then we’ll certainly have to have a conversation.

The investigators complimented some of the recent reforms undertaken, but note they only came after the investigation began and VMI was already under unprecedented scrutiny. They write that they believe VMI will likely only follow through if forced. Do you think that’s true?

I think what I would tell you is, in addition to the report that came out today, we released a unified action plan that comes from me that describes VMI moving forward. And in that unified action plan, it talks about our position on building a more inclusive and diverse environment at VMI. It talks about our commitment to honor. It talks about zero tolerance for racism, sexism. It talks about certain focus areas and tasks that we’ve already begun to get after and we’ll continue to get after to change the landscape of VMI so that it is more diverse and inclusive.

Reading the report, it appears the authors’ pessimism was colored by VMI’s reluctance to participate in the investigation, including by insisting its attorneys be present for many interviews, withholding documents and, in at least once case, they suspect documents were altered. The authors wrote, “The unusual amount of vitriol, criticism, condescension and condemnation from many in the VMI community regarding this investigation has been alarming.” Why was VMI so reluctant to participate, especially given the concern raised by students of color in the media and elsewhere?

I would tell you that my pledge when I came down here was to be open and transparent. We provided the Barnes & Thornburg team well over 100,000 pages of documents that dealt with everything from honor to Title IX cases, policies and procedures as pertains to how the school operates, how the school deals with infractions of racism and sexism. I personally devoted five hours or more of my time in two different settings with the Barnes & Thornburg team to talk about my position as the interim superintendent, my recognition of the work that needed to be done to address problems here at VMI and the path I was going to chart ahead.

We encouraged — because all of this was voluntary — but we certainly encouraged our student body to participate in the investigation for no other reason than they would be able to represent and tell what their experiences were like here at VMI today. And certainly, the opportunity and the offer to afford them legal counsel when sitting down and talking to people with legal expertise — I saw nothing wrong with that. It was purely voluntary on the part of the cadets, the faculty and the staff. And so they could choose to use legal counsel or not. So I thought we were very transparent and open and I thought over the five month period of time doing this investigation, we gave them a lot of openness and understanding about VMI as a culture, VMI as a college environment and the areas where we were looking to make change.

At a certain point in the report, the authors mused that VMI administration’s insistence on having attorneys available during the investigation might lead the school to reconsider its prohibition on students having counsel present when they’re facing honor violations. Is that something that you’re considering?

We have a committee that is formed that is going to have a broad constituency of alumni, current members of our honor court, faculty and other staff that are going to participate in this committee to review our procedures as a part of our honor system. And so they will take a look at that in various different areas and make recommendations to me on how the system runs, if the system continues to run as intended and what modifications might be required. And so if they offer that to me, we certainly will take a look at it.

Since your appointment, what do you view as the most significant step the institute has taken to begin addressing these problems?

We have selected our first chief diversity officer who will be on board here in the first of week of July. Our memorials and naming committee has gone through and made recommendations that have been approved by the board of visitors that would change certain iconography and memorials that recognize VMI’s period from 1861 to 1864 — that Civil War period — and move us forward to the 20th and 21st century, where we can highlight celebrated leaders such as George C. Marshall and other more modern day leaders who are reflective of the character and leaders we produce here at the school.

Is one of those efforts particularly meaningful to you?

What will be meaningful to me will be a clear recognition that the men and women who come here can find their place. And it doesn’t matter to me where they came from, and it doesn’t matter to me what color they are and what gender they are. If they can find their place and pursue excellence here, that will be a satisfaction to me.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.