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)
The head of the embattled Virginia Military Institute told a state oversight body Tuesday that there will be “zero tolerance for any more acts of racism and sexism” at the public military school in Lexington.
“I’ve had an opportunity through about 25 hours worth of listening sessions to form my own assessment about the climate and culture at VMI,” Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, VMI’s superintendent, told the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. “I spoke to the corps of cadets and let them know where I stood.”
Wins’ remarks to the council, Virginia’s coordinating body for higher education, came a little more than a month after a state-commissioned report concluded the school had long tolerated racism and sexism and just a day after a Washington Post story described an atmosphere of misogyny and reluctance among female cadets to report sexual assault.
Wins laid out VMI’s “Unifying Action Plan,” which he said intends to “advance the VMI experience, traditions and culture, to be more positive and honorable for all VMI’s cadets, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends.” The plan has five goals: rehabilitating the “VMI brand,” increasing diversity and inclusion, producing cadets who are “committed to honor,” reinforcing a nature of healthy competition on campus, and cultivating a culture of “one VMI.”
“If we can arrive at these outcomes in one to five years, I think we will have advanced well beyond a lot of the things that have been identified in the Barnes & Thornburg report and highlighted in the Washington Post,” Wins said.
Wins said VMI is reviewing it’s honor system, its monuments and naming committee, modernizing the barracks — complete with a security assessment — and hiring a chief diversity officer.
The board inquired about what the school would do to reform VMI culture, starting with how to contextualize the school’s Confederate history.
“We’ve never made the shift out of the 19th century, and recognizing 19th century leaders that fought in the Civil War and Spanish-American War,” Wins said.
“We never shifted to really put our focus on more modern day leaders and events. We are never going to change the history of America, and we are never going to change the history of the commonwealth. What we can do is put those events in a proper place.”
Asked about reporting in the Post that revealed ugly online backlash concerning the appointment of Kasey Meredith as VMI’s first female leader of the VMI corp of cadets, Wins said: “I don’t like to hear it, but certainly people have the ability to exercise their First Amendment right.”
He added that “there’s no doubt in my mind” that Meredith “was the right person to be the leader of the Corps of Cadets, and I have no doubt that she’ll build the trust and confidence of the cadets as this academic year goes by.”
As far as reported reluctance of female cadets to report sexual assaults, Wins said it’s important for VMI to create an “environment of confidence” for female cadets.
“At some point we’re going to have to take action to remind people that we do have a zero tolerance policy. Our recent title IX inspector general Susan LeMert brings a wealth of experience to the office, and I think that her presence will help create an environment where people who may have experience sexual assault will feel more comfortable to come forward.”
VMI’s next step in the “Unifying Action Plan” is a meeting with Sen. Janet Howell (D – Fairfax), who is proposing cutting funding to VMI until real change is made.
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