Newspaper Standoff at VMI

Virginia Military Institute administrators have a contentious relationship with a resurrected student newspaper, which they worry is a puppet publication for alumni with an ax to grind against reforms.

April 13, 2022
 
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The resurrected ‘Cadet’ newspaper has a storied history at VMI.

A student-run publication or a mouthpiece for disgruntled alumni? That question is at the heart of an ongoing conflict over the recent resurrection of a student newspaper at Virginia Military Institute.

Known as The Cadet, the newspaper emerged in spring 2021, when it launched with a graduation edition. And almost as soon as The Cadet arose, so too did a battle over the paper. The conflict is an extension of the tug-of-war between administration and alumni over a multitude of changes at the historic military college, including a newfound commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Student journalists now find themselves stuck in the middle.

In fact, the history of The Cadet as a VMI publication goes back to 1871, when it was started as a magazine. It was converted to a newspaper in 1907 and lasted until 2016, when it ceased printing due to a lack of interest, according to VMI officials.

Now The Cadet has been reborn, this time as a nonprofit organization backed and mentored by alumni but under the control of student journalists. Supporters suggest that establishing it as a 501(c)(3) is the best way to raise money to keep the paper going and avoid another potential shutdown. But the publication is not officially recognized by VMI and operates independently, meaning it lacks access to university resources.

For the most part, The Cadet, available online and in print, looks largely like most other college newspapers: sports, features on students and alumni, op-eds. The newspaper even touches on campus-specific news at VMI that seemingly hasn’t been reported elsewhere, such as the Board of Visitors dropping awards named for Confederates Stonewall Jackson and Moses Ezekiel. But beyond the news, the op-ed pages feature a significant amount of commentary chastising VMI leadership for the challenges the newspaper has faced and decrying changes at the college.

Questions of Editorial Independence

Getting started hasn’t proven easy. Even as the paper is printed and distributed biweekly, it has encountered certain challenges. Chief among them: The Cadet is caught in the crossfire between the college’s alumni and the leadership taking the institution in a new direction, determined to change a culture that tolerated racism and sexism under the prior administration, according to an external report.

Now that battle is bleeding through to the newspaper.

“At the creation of this paper, it was very alumni driven, and that was a concern for us,” said VMI spokesperson Bill Wyatt. “[Superintendent Cedric T.] Wins has said from the beginning that he 100 percent supports a cadet-run newspaper, one that has a faculty adviser and is completely run by and published for cadets. He’s got no problem with that concept. The concern at the beginning was that there was a lot of alumni influence.”

But Jason Poblete, legal counsel representing The Cadet and its supporting organization, the Cadet Foundation, disputes that alumni are exerting influence over the paper’s operations.

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“The student editors are ultimately responsible for making all decisions on the editorial content,” Poblete said.

Poblete declined to state who hired him to advance The Cadet’s interests, citing attorney-client privilege.

The Student Press Law Center, which has pushed VMI to recognize the paper, notes that it believes students are in charge, SPLC attorney Mike Hiestand wrote in an email.

“We only work with student-edited media so it was important that I heard from the students themselves before I got involved. The students have assured me they are the ones making the final editorial decisions. The alumni and other journalism advisers (they are working with some professional journalists) are from everything I’ve observed just that—advisers,” Hiestand said. “Their advice on editorial matters can be either accepted or ignored by the students.”

He added that because the paper runs as a nonprofit, advisers are more heavily involved on “the business, logistics and fundraising side.” He also suggested that upon launching the paper last spring, “there was genuine concern that the cadets might be targeted by the administration for working on The Cadet and the alum and other advisers wanted to act as a buffer.”

But one student journalist working on the paper said by email, “the rumor that The Cadet is run by alumni is partially true,” noting the influence of VMI graduates Bob Morris and Thomas Wilson.

The student, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution from VMI’s leadership, suggested that Morris, who revived the paper and created the Cadet Foundation 501(c)(3), is “the main driving force behind the paper.” Morris also runs The Cadet’s social media accounts, recruits staff members and connects students with sources, the student said, adding that the paper has run stories by Morris.

“He has written some stories for the paper, too, but as to which ones, I have no idea, because we attribute a lot of stories to ‘VMI Cadet Staff,’ which is what he publishes his stories as,” the student said.

Morris—who is also the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against VMI earlier this month seeking to stop its diversity, equity and inclusion practices, which he declined to discuss—downplayed his contributions.

“Alumni and non-alumni volunteers (that I am just one of) help with research on topics when asked,” Morris said in an email. “In the past, especially for articles on alumni like the ‘profiles in leadership pieces’ the cadets received input from alumni and even family members of deceased alumni as any journalists would. Those are all noted in the by-lines for the articles as appropriate. I believe one example is the story on the history of the sentinel box in the May edition and the feature on Col. William Powell in the reunion edition. I was present the night Col. Powell was killed and so I, and the others were asked for input."

Morris also declined to confirm whether he hired Poblete, citing attorney-client privilege.

The Permit Process

Student journalists also face challenges unique to VMI’s structure as a military college. Students are required to have permits to opt out of certain academic or military duties and direct time elsewhere. For example, a student who wanted to leave campus to interview a source or work in the offices of the local newspaper where The Cadet is published would need a permit to go “off post.” Yet to date, VMI hasn't agreed to grant any permits to students putting out the newspaper.

Wyatt, the VMI spokesperson, suggested that a permit hasn’t yet been granted because of the way Morris went about establishing the newspaper as a nonprofit organization independent of the university.

According to Wyatt, VMI had already received a student request last spring to establish a journalism club and newspaper, which would be reviewed by the cadet activities board in the fall. But Morris established The Cadet, independent of VMI, before the student request process was completed. Now that The Cadet exists, officials say VMI has no plans to launch a competing newspaper.

And while Wyatt said that “VMI would dispute that it is a continuation of the paper that was started in the 1870s,” he believes that recognition is on the horizon. But by his account, Morris’s actions have ultimately delayed the recognition of the paper and the permit-granting process.

“When alumni mentors went out and created the separate 501(c)(3) and said, ‘No, actually, we’re not part of VMI,’ then that precluded them from the permit process,” Wyatt said.

But Poblete argues that VMI is the one dragging out the permitting process and setting up roadblocks as a way to clamp down on the newspaper.

“There’s a lot happening at VMI right now that frankly has absolutely nothing to do with the paper. Cadets are kind of caught in the middle. They don’t want to be caught in the middle of all this. But that’s what’s happened, in my opinion, looking at it from the outside. The administration of the college has been trying to reform the VMI system,” he said. “And I think the administration has a problem in how they’re going to deal with a student newspaper in this reorganization.”

Likewise, the student journalist who requested anonymity believes that VMI wants to maintain a tightly controlled narrative about the campus that an independent student newspaper threatens.

“Personally, I believe that due to VMI making recent headlines in national news, VMI really wants to control all publications coming from its Cadets, Faculty, and Staff,” the student wrote, adding that “only specific Cadets are allowed to talk to the media and all academic departments and clubs need to get explicit permission to have a website or social media account.”

The Path Forward

As a public college, VMI has to yield to the First Amendment, though the unusual permit process does allow the college to impose some limitations—or at least inconveniences—based on the structure of the military institution. Likewise, students fear that the leadership may wield the institution’s strict rules in retaliation, arbitrarily punishing them for editorial decisions.

But ultimately, it seems the newspaper is trending toward recognition.

“We’re hoping that we can find common ground where we can recognize them,” Wyatt said. “Of course, VMI in no way contests their right to free speech or to contribute to or run a newspaper.”

Wyatt adds that the administration isn’t seeking editorial control or prior review. Because the paper should offer a learning experience for cadets, the college hopes to attach a faculty adviser to help guide students. And there’s no plan to place the newspaper under the authority of VMI’s public relations office.

“I think that my role as the director of communications—someone who’s pushing out information about VMI, someone who’s defending and promoting VMI—would be a conflict of interest,” Wyatt said.

Hiestand suggests that both sides continue to size things up as the conflict carries on.

“I think the VMI administrators—like those at many of the public colleges we work with at the Student Press Law Center—are not thrilled that The Cadet has been brought back to life and is now watching and reporting independently,” Hiestand wrote. “It’s much easier when the only ‘news’ is being put out by a college’s PR office. Fortunately, the law protects the student staff and hopefully the sides will work things out peacefully—or at least find some sort of détente.”

In the meantime, the paper continues to be distributed around campus—a relief for students who saw VMI staff remove the paper from a local Chamber of Commerce event months earlier, reportedly because it wasn’t an official college publication. And the resurrected paper, whether influenced by alumni or completely independent, is seemingly here to stay.

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