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VMI Alumni Take Aim at College’s DEI Efforts

A petition and a letter asking state officials to investigate claims of critical race theory at Virginia Military Institute are the latest salvos in an ongoing conflict between leadership and alumni.

April 6, 2022
 
Andrew Lichtenstein via Corbis News
Some alumni are resistant to efforts to increase diversity at VMI after an external report exposed racism and sexism at the public military college.

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are once again under attack at Virginia Military Institute. The latest skirmish comes months after the military college’s president publicly rebuked an alumnus for claiming in an interview that VMI’s DEI efforts were in fact an effort to establish critical race theory on campus.

VMI has denied that critical race theory is part of its curriculum. Unconvinced, outspoken alumni are now circulating a petition asking Virginia’s attorney general to look into the matter. While the petition acknowledges that “no formal course in CRT is being offered in the curriculum at VMI,” it also claims “the elements of that theory are being woven into the fabric, rendering harm to the VMI Experience.”

Critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept, has become a buzzword for conservatives who claim that students are being misled about American history—particularly with regard to race relations—as part of a liberal ploy. Now some VMI alumni hope that Governor Glenn Youngkin, who seized upon CRT in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, will intercede to put an end to the divisive concepts they claim are being taught at VMI.

Challenges to DEI efforts at VMI come amid a change in leadership. The public military college recently appointed its first Black president, Superintendent Cedric T. Wins, who was hired in 2021 after the prior superintendent resigned amid accusations that racism and sexism flourished on his watch.

Now Wins is tasked with righting the ship at VMI less than a year after an external report found that “institutional racism and sexism are present, tolerated, and left unaddressed at VMI.”

DEI Work at VMI

The first shots on CRT were fired publicly in January, when 1976 graduate Carmen Villani Jr. claimed in a radio interview that Wins had failed to adequately defend VMI amid allegations of racism and sexism, findings Villani has downplayed. Villani also claimed that CRT had “entered into the VMI realm” and questioned state funding tapped to enhance diversity efforts at the college.

Villani did not respond to interview requests—then or now—from Inside Higher Ed.

But in a letter to Angela Sailor, Virginia’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Villani wrote, “VMI has acted quickly in implementing policies aligned with CRT which I believe are detrimental to the VMI experience. I request that you act with a sense of urgency in making your own determination as to whether or not CRT has found its ways into VMI."

The separate anti-CRT petition strikes a similar tone, asking Virginia attorney general Jason Miyares to halt VMI’s ongoing DEI work pending an investigation to determine whether CRT is taught.

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A campus spokesperson sharply denied via email that CRT is taught at the college, which is located in the mountains of Virginia and has a long history linked to the Confederacy.

“It’s important to note that Mr. Villani is a Texas resident who has not been to VMI in years,” VMI spokesperson Bill Wyatt wrote. “He has little understanding of what actually goes on here and has his own definition of CRT which is informed by a particular political philosophy. The ‘CRT’ to which Mr. Villani refers is very basic diversity training designed to help cadets understand that not everyone thinks like they do. These are very common exercises that have been used in higher education for years. There is no requirement for cadets to participate though they do have to attend. Our sophomores, juniors, and seniors were required to attend one hour of training this academic year. The freshmen were required to attend two hours. Despite Mr. Villani’s gloom and doom, the feedback from cadets was overwhelmingly positive based on post-training surveys.”

Wyatt pointed to VMI’s Inclusive Excellence plan to highlight ongoing DEI work, such as recruiting more diverse students, faculty and staff members; providing diversity training for students, employees and the Board of Visitors; and offering educational DEI programming to community organizations outside the college.

Separately, VMI has also worked to minimize the Confederate imagery and influence at the college in response to widespread accusations of racism. Such efforts included relocating a statue of former Confederate general and VMI professor Stonewall Jackson to an off-campus site in fall 2020.

Despite challenges from alumni, Wins has plenty of supporters in those ranks as well. A group dubbing itself VMI Senior African American Alumni recently signaled its support in an open letter, praising the leadership of Wins and noting that fellow grads have downplayed incidents of racism that have occurred at VMI.

“It has been disappointing to hear that various alumni have downplayed that racial incidents happened. Even more, it has been disheartening to read how certain alumni have questioned the integrity of [Major General] Wins and members of his administration, something unheard of until he was appointed Superintendent,” read the letter, signed by 13 VMI graduates.

DEI efforts at VMI also have the support of the Board of Visitors, the college’s governing body.

“The work being done at the Institute is critical toward the objectives set forth by the Board of Visitors. The preparation and readiness of our cadets for the world in which we live has never been more important,” board president Tom Watjen said in March. “Our cadet graduates today face a very different world than we did when I graduated, a world that is socially and culturally diverse. Some have suggested that to take the steps we’ve taken is ‘woke’ or supportive of such concepts as critical race theory. We have a responsibility to educate our cadets on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues but not indoctrinate. I can assure you we understand that distinction. I’m appealing to those taking these positions to educate themselves on what’s really happening at the Institute and support us as we help assure that our cadets are positioned for success in the military, business, and public sectors following graduation.”

And despite appeals to Youngkin, Wyatt points to an ongoing relationship with the governor’s office that includes working with Sailor, Virginia’s DEI chief.

“Our chief diversity officer works very closely with Governor Youngkin’s chief diversity, opportunity, and inclusion officer as well as counterparts throughout Virginia’s institutions of higher education,” Wyatt said. “In fact, VMI’s chief diversity officer has spent the better part of the past two days conducting DEI training provided by the governor’s office to all VMI employees.”

Conflating DEI With CRT

Experts suggest that some nuance is often lost in the alphabet soup of DEI and CRT, sometimes out of genuine confusion about the concepts but sometimes as part of a deliberate attempts to blur the lines.

“Unfortunately, in recent history, it’s not unusual to find CRT and DEI efforts being conflated,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. “I think much of it has to do with the political environment that we’re in right now, one that I think is labeling DEI work as critical race theory to rebrand what I think are objections to efforts by institutions and organizations to address racism. Some of this is objections to, and I think a backlash to, both protests and advocacy to address racism in this country.”

She described deliberate conflation between CRT and DEI as “fearmongering at its worst.”

Katherine S. Cho, a professor of educational leadership at Miami University who has studied institutional accountability, notes that DEI work often gets reduced to just being about race, despite the fact that it extends to gender, sexual orientation, first-generation status and more.

She also suggests that often the attacks on critical race theory aren’t even about the concept itself but rather are an attempt to simply shut down conversations about race. Backlash around CRT often causes universities to lose sight of DEI work amid the controversy, she said, noting that institutions are susceptible to and easily distracted by such attacks.

“These are fear tactics to cause panic for universities, to shut down DEI initiatives,” Cho said.

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