The military school’s links to the Confederacy and its treatment of female cadets were laid bare in an independent, taxpayer-funded review.
RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A state-funded investigation into one of the nation’s oldest military academies has found patterns of institutional racism and sexism within the school’s hallowed walls.
Founded in 1839 as America’s first state military college, the Virginia Military Institute is tied to some of the nation’s best known military and political leaders. But a 152-page report released Tuesday shows sexism and racism are pervasive at the school and efforts to make the program more inclusive have failed to gain traction.
“This investigation found that institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated, and left unaddressed at VMI,” the report states. “Although VMI has no explicitly racist or sexist policies that it enforces, the facts reflect an overall racist and sexist culture.”
According to the report, 42% of Black cadets believe they are discriminated against “a lot” while half of them claim the school makes it “harder for people of color to succeed.”
“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,” states the report authored by the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg and released by Virginia’s Council for Higher Education.
It also details the “not uncommon” nature of racial slurs and jokes on campus. While it acknowledged a system existed to address complaints related to their use, the report also said the system failed to reach the number of cadets needed to make changes.
And then there’s the school’s history with the American Civil War. A statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who taught at the school, remained on campus until late last year, and the report found traditions linked to the school’s Confederate history remain.
Among the traditions was that of saluting the now-removed Jackson monument, something even Black cadets were forced to do. Another long-running tradition involves taking a Cadet Oath at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, the only site where an entire class of VMI cadets fought in an active battle. There, the young soldiers “filled in the gaps” on the Confederate line and cadets are still reminded of that at a celebration every May.
“I think the attachment to New Market, the Confederacy and Jackson lets racism seep into our culture and unconsciously affect us,” wrote an anonymous white student when asked about the Civil War’s impact on campus.
Meanwhile, a Black cadet said the New Market tradition, which includes donning Confederate military garb, “made him feel uncomfortable and weird because he had to wear the clothes of someone who ‘did not want me to be on this Earth.’”
But that sentiment was far from universal. Over 70% of white respondents supported the New Market tradition.
“We celebrate the New Market battle not because of the Confederacy, but because cadets our age and younger [were] ordered to risk their lives and they won the battle,” wrote one unnamed cadet. “In today’s society many American teens don’t honor or respect the sacrifices made, but VMI instills respect, honor, and duty.”
Sexism on the VMI campus was also recounted by past female cadets. One graduate said that while leadership roles were open to men and women, only men ever served. Another said she heard of a group called the “Black Hand Society” within male cadet ranks that acted to find ways to remove female cadets.
Still, other female cadets said they felt welcomed at the school.
“While I have encountered men who made it loud and clear that they don’t think women should be here, I can tell you for far more hours about the good men and women who remind me on a daily basis that I DO have a place here, and that I earned it,” one female cadet wrote.
The college’s use of an honor court system was another issue slammed by investigators.
“The Honor Court allows certain students who are reported for or charged with Honor Code violations an opportunity to go through an education process rather than face a trial and expulsion,” the report states. “This ‘education exception’ grants wide, undefined discretion to the Honor Court prosecutors and carries the potential for disparate application due to implicit bias.”
The report concluded by suggesting the issues aren’t beyond repair.
“Should it choose to do so, VMI can embrace change while still retaining its core values,” the report states. “An honest and open examination of the race and gender issues at VMI, coupled with a commitment to progress and change is required to allow the VMI experience to be a challenging but safe and welcoming experience for a more diverse population of young people.”
“To say the least, VMI has never undertaken that examination,” it added.
A request for comment sent to Colonel William “Bill” Wyatt, the academy’s media liaison, was not returned by press time.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, himself a VMI graduate, acknowledged the systemic racism and sexism outlined in the report. While he praised the school for taking steps to address the issues, he said much more work is still needed.
“The question is whether VMI is willing to acknowledge this reality,” the Democratic governor said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “VMI is an agency of state government, and we will hold it accountable.”