Connolly, Brown, Speier Call for Action to Address Racism at the Virginia Military Institute
House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations Chair Gerry Connolly (VA-11), House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Anthony G. Brown (MD-04), and House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel Chair Jackie Speier (CA-14) wrote a letter to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam calling for additional action to address persistent threats, hostility directed toward Black cadets at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
On October 17th, the Washington Post reported on an “atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity” at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college. Current and former Black cadets described lynching threats, professors openly reminiscing about the Ku Klux Klan, a campus culture that venerates the Confederacy and little to no disciplinary action by VMI. The members support Governor Northam’s swift corrective actions to ensure VMI meets its commitments in developing the next generation of military and civilian leaders. On Monday, October 26th, VMI Superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III resigned.
“The verified complaints at this institution run counter to the ideals that we aspire to as a nation and that our military has sworn to defend,” the members wrote. “It is incumbent on VMI leadership to ensure that our future officers are trained in an environment that embraces diversity and inclusion, that the cadets embody such values in their character, and that every student is able to attend VMI without being subject to racism or discrimination.”
The members make clear that any cadet or faculty member who breaches the VMI Honor Code through racist or discriminatory conduct be sanctioned with an immediate dismissal. Additionally, the members request that VMI conduct regular climate surveys of current cadets and recent alumni to gauge the prevalence of racist beliefs, experiences of discrimination and harassment within the institution. Lastly, the members call for the removal of Confederate symbols and statues from campus.
Every cadet at VMI is enrolled in a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, with many receiving a full scholarship from the Department of Defense. According to VMI, approximately half of cadets are commissioned in the military each year upon graduation.
Read the full letter below.
Dear Governor Northam:
We write to express our strong support for your actions and the formal investigation that you have initiated into the reported instances of racism, discrimination, and harassment at Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The verified complaints at this institution run counter to the ideals that we aspire to as a nation and that our military has sworn to defend. As Members of the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Oversight & Reform, we are grateful for your immediate action and look forward to corrective action that ensures VMI meets its commitments in developing the next generation of military and civilian leaders.
As a senior military college, VMI has a close and special relationship with the United States Armed Forces. Every cadet at the institution is enrolled in a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, with many of them receiving a full scholarship from the Department of Defense. By VMI’s own accord, approximately half of its cadets are commissioned in the military each year upon graduation. The Department reciprocates the institution’s service to our country by detailing an active duty officer to serve as Commandant of Cadets and providing resources to train the next generation of leaders.
As such, we are dismayed that racism is tolerated and has been allowed to persist throughout VMI. Institution leadership has stated that “[t]here is no place for racism or discrimination at VMI [and] any allegation of racism or discrimination will be investigated and appropriately punished, if substantiated.” Yet, prior substantiated actions of racism at the institution have been disciplined through suspensions, in direct contradiction to the VMI Honor System that “does not recognize degrees of honor” and states “the sanction for any breach of honor is dismissal.” Accordingly, any offending cadet or faculty member who breaches the honor code through racist or discriminatory conduct must be sanctioned with an immediate dismissal.
Furthermore, we request that VMI conduct regular climate surveys of current cadets and recent alumni to gauge the prevalence of racist beliefs, experiences of discrimination, and harassment within the institution. The culture in our military institutions is critical to our ability as a nation to provide for the common defense against our adversaries. Each organization must have a culture that encourages leadership, strong morale, and cohesion, and each supervisor and commander is responsible for regularly assessing these factors. A failure to do so diminishes the effectiveness of units to execute their mission. In the case of VMI, their mission is “to produce citizen-soldiers, men and women educated for civilian life and prepare them to potentially serve their country in the armed forces.” Only by performing regular command climate surveys will we be able to understand the extent to which racism remains within the institution and be able to take action to foster an environment at VMI that is inclusive of all cadets.
Lastly, we request that you work with VMI to immediately remove from the campus grounds any statues or symbols that memorialize leaders of the Confederacy. Every servicemember in the United States Armed Forces swears an oath to the Constitution and to defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Those who took up arms against the Union, including General Stonewall Jackson, betrayed that oath and dishonored their commitment to our country. Jackson did not use his tactical skill for the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness; he chose instead to employ it to fight for the enslavement of an entire race. His values and character have no place in the instruction of military leaders, and his statue, and others in its mold that are monuments to systemic racism, must be immediately removed.
It is incumbent on VMI leadership to ensure that our future officers are trained in an environment that embraces diversity and inclusion, that the cadets embody such values in their character, and that every student is able to attend VMI without being subject to racism or discrimination. We stand ready to assist you in advancing these objectives within the institution and will consider legislative options to do so.
We thank you for your continued shared values on diversity and inclusion and your prompt response to these requests. We look forward to the results of your investigation and working together in support of our national security.