Virginia Military Institute
General J. H. Binford Peay III has a complicated legacy at Virginia Military Institute. After 17 years as superintendent, Peay resigned in 2020 under scrutiny amid an investigation that would reveal damning details about VMI’s culture. But now, with the embers of scandal still hot, Peay is set to receive the New Market Medal, VMI’s highest honor, at an event in November.
Peay’s military résumé is lengthy and studded with medals earned over the course of a 35-year career in the U.S. Army, where he rose to the rank of four-star general. At VMI he is credited with improving academics and co-curricular programs and overseeing major renovations during his tenure. A 1962 VMI graduate, he also played quarterback on the football team.
But Peay’s legacy at VMI has been muddied by a 2021 state-commissioned investigation that accused him of allowing a racist and sexist culture to flourish at the public military college and ignoring such incidents that occurred under his command. Many VMI graduates have rejected the results of the investigation.
Now the VMI Board of Visitors is set to honor Peay, even as a new administration—led by retired Army major general Cedric T. Wins, a fellow VMI graduate—aims for a more inclusive institution.
Recognition of Service
The New Market Medal—named for a Civil War battle in which VMI cadets fought on the Confederate side—has been awarded to 15 individuals since 1962. Most recipients are VMI graduates, and they include a mix of Virginia politicians and long-serving military members.
When Peay is awarded the medal at a VMI’s Founder’s Days event next month, it won’t be the first honor he’s received since his resignation. In May, the Board of Visitors awarded him the title superintendent emeritus and announced plans to name a building in his honor—as well as a dining room named for his wife, Pamela Peay.
The 17-member Board of Visitors is comprised of 13 members appointed by former Democratic governors Terry McAuliffe and Dr. Ralph Northam and four named by current Republican governor Glenn Youngkin. They voted unanimously at last month’s meeting to honor Peay with the New Market Medal, following a detailed review process that considered various applicants.
Ultimately, the board decided that Peay deserved the honor based on his total body of work, which includes two tours in the Vietnam War and a series of high-ranking command positions.
“For all of us, we’re human. And to see how a leader that served 35 years in the military and 17 years at an institution like VMI, you wanted a better exit for an individual like that,” said Tom Watjen, president of VMI’s Board of Visitors and a 1976 graduate. “General Peay took the honorable route, given the circumstances he was presented with. But I think we all feel that he deserved a better end to an amazing career, both in the military and at VMI.”
Board members have signaled skepticism about some of the damning details that emerged from the report into VMI’s culture, placing the blame on bad actors rather than overall systemic issues.
“If we’re trying to look at what he’s accomplished, and then frame it around some of the [state-commissioned report], everyone walked away and said that was probably not an accurate depiction of what the general did through his tenure at VMI,” said Gene Scott, a 1980 VMI graduate and a member of the Board of Visitors committee that considers nominations for the New Market Medal before advancing them to the full board for a vote.
Board members also said that timing of the honor is important.
Though they believe the report that details VMI’s climate was not fully accurate, board members said they recognized the need to make certain culture changes at the institution. Under fire from state leaders in 2020, they chose not to publicly honor Peay before he left, despite what they saw as his years of honorable service to the college.
“Unfortunately, given the way things emerged with his departure, there was no real chance to recognize him,” Watjen said. “He served for 17 years in a way that has made the school better. There was no ability to recognize that period. And especially in military quarters, that’s a very important part of how you step out of your last assignment and into the next phase of life.”
Board members also stressed that Peay was not fired but resigned when then Democratic Virginia governor Dr. Ralph Northam—a 1981 VMI graduate himself—expressed a lack of confidence in his leadership.
“I think the message to women and people of color is that our goal is to try to get it right by recognizing General Peay, [but] it’s not to say that what they experienced was in any way diminished,” said Scott, a Black cadet who attended VMI in the late 1970s.
The latest honor for Peay comes amid a battle for the soul of VMI. As the new administration works to improve the culture issues exposed under Peay’s leadership, it has faced resistance to change, particularly from older alumni who see no need for—and in some cases actively oppose—diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Some have claimed, inaccurately, that VMI is teaching critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept that has emerged as a conservative boogeyman. Public criticism over the issue even prompted a rare rebuke of an alumnus by Wins, who dismissed the attempt to conflate DEI efforts with CRT.
Some graduates and free speech groups have also accused VMI of slow-walking recognition of its student newspaper, fearing that alumni are asserting undue influence over the publication.
These cultural issues are compounded by recent enrollment challenges at VMI.
But despite tensions between old-guard alumni and the new administration, college officials have indicated their support for the board’s move to honor the former superintendent. VMI spokesperson Bill Wyatt noted that his military service alone qualifies Peay for the medal.
“This award is not just for General Peay’s service to VMI. This has to do with his entire 30-plus-year career in the Army, which one could argue that he would have been a great candidate for this award had he never stepped foot on VMI as a superintendent,” Wyatt told Inside Higher Ed.
The Shadow of Past Presidents
While Wyatt described Peay as “beloved” by alumni, the current commander doesn’t enjoy the same status. Wins, VMI’s first Black superintendent, has been the subject of intense scrutiny from alumni as he works to increase DEI efforts at the institution.
So what does it mean when an institution honors a popular president with a troubled legacy? And how should institutions welcome back a leader who resigned under pressure from state leaders? Experts say there’s no playbook on the matter, but sometimes there can be closure.
“If [governing boards] feel that the issues that surrounded the president weren’t put to rest internally, by the alumni or other groups, they’ll often try to close it out. And if they can close it out, they can move on,” said Brian Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and co-author of Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education and other works.
Mitchell added that boards have to consider alumni as “a source of momentum and enthusiasm,” and that honoring a past president in this case may be a way to appeal to VMI’s graduates.
R. Barbara Gitenstein, senior vice president for AGB Consulting and president emerita of the College of New Jersey, said that boards must consider what is best for the institution as a whole. And however they honor a past president, boards must know what signals they’re sending.
“Boards should discuss, with the former president and each other, to what extent they should honor or work with former leaders,” she said by email. “The arrangement should be well defined. In a situation with a new incoming president, while the new president does not usually have input into the specifics of the arrangement with a predecessor, they should be fully informed of such arrangements. A strategic board will talk about the impact that these types of decisions can have on the institution’s mission, priorities, and campus culture. Effective board members will reflect on the signals they send when selecting who to honor and how to honor an individual.”