Report finds VMI has ‘racist and sexist culture’

A five-month investigation into Virginia Military Institute found the school has a “racist and sexist culture.”

The investigation, conducted by the law firm Barnes and Thornburg LLP at the request of the Virginia State Council of Higher Education, found that “institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated and left unaddressed at VMI.” Gov. Ralph Northam and other officials ordered the investigation after reports surfaced of pervasive racism at the school.

The 145-page report said allegations made by students, faculty and alumni were “disturbing” and argued that, unless the school implements comprehensive reform, VMI will “remain a school for white men.” To complete the report, investigators surveyed 2,496 people and interviewed 385 VMI cadets, alumni and faculty.

According to the survey, half of Black cadets “strongly or somewhat agree there is a culture of racial intolerance at VMI.” In comparison, only 10% white students felt the same. The report found that racial slurs and jokes could be heard on campus. Seventeen percent of candidates said they heard a racial slur “more than a few times.”

Students detailed specific incidents of this during interviews with the investigators.

“At least one African American cadet and one biracial cadet reported that they were called (a racial slur) by peers,” the report said. White students also reported hearing the racial slur “nonstop” and at least “10 times a day from various people.”

“Another African American cadet recounted a situation in which a brother rat was told by his roommate to ‘go back to Africa’ and called (a racial slur), and the punishment was only to change roommates,” the report said.

According to the report, many people on campus felt that the school’s gender issues were worse than its racial problems.

It also noted that sexual assault was “prevalent,” yet “inadequately addressed” by school officials. Fourteen percent of female cadets reported being sexually assaulted, and 63% said a fellow cadet told them he or she was a victim of a sexual assault.

Female respondents also told investigators they feared retaliatory consequences for reporting sexual assault or not being taken seriously.

“Cadets, alumni, and faculty repeatedly described the culture at VMI as one of silence, fear, and intimidation, especially as it relates to the reporting of problems or issues that reflect negatively on the Institute or its leadership,” said the report.

“Interviewees reported that, in some sexual assault cases, members of the VMI administration have actively dissuaded victims from making reports. Interview respondents also explained that they perceived or experienced that VMI leadership puts a high priority on suppressing information and avoiding difficult situations, and less of a priority on addressing underlying problems.”

Lastly, the law firm outlined a similar pattern of insignificant consequences for offenders of racism or sexual harassment and assault.

Barnes and Thornburg recommended that, among other actionable items, VMI should create a strategic plan to improve diversity equity and inclusion, submit quarterly reports to the General Assembly and governor’s office and reexamine the disciplinary policies.

In an interview with WTOP on Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins — VMI’s first Black superintendent — said he hadn’t had the opportunity to review the report in depth, but expects the report’s recommendations will overlap with the plans VMI has already implemented.

Wins said the school is “not immune to the ills of society.”

VMI’s Board of Visitors said in a statement that the allegations made in the report are serious, but the reported behavior has never been tolerated by the institution. It added that under Wins, changes have began to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the college.

“While there is more to be done, these recent changes follow a history of taking steps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the Institute, and we expect to continue to do so,” the statement said.

Barnes and Thornburg said they experienced similar mistreatment from VMI leadership while conducting their investigation. They described how documents were withheld, and how a culture of fear prevented potential interviewees from talking to investigators.

Wins rejected those accusations, and said VMI leadership was “very, very transparent” with investigators.

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