Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are under attack again at the Virginia Military Institute. The latest skirmish comes months after the military college president publicly chastised 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 and outspoken alumni are now circulating a petition asking the Virginia attorney general to look into the matter. While the petition acknowledges that “no formal courses in CRT are offered in the VMI curriculum”, it also claims that “elements of this theory are woven into the fabric, which is detrimental to the VMI experience”.
Critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept, has become a buzzword for conservatives who claim students are being misled about American history — especially when it comes to race relations — in the part of a liberal scheme. Now, some VMI alumni are hoping Governor Glenn Youngkin, who hijacked the CRT in the Virginia gubernatorial election, will intercede to end the divisive concepts they claim are being taught at VMI.
Challenges to DEI’s efforts at VMI come in the midst of a change in leadership. The public military college recently named its first black president, Superintendent Cedric T. Wins, who was hired in 2021 after the former superintendent resigned amid accusations that racism and sexism flourished under his leadership. .
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 Working at VMI
The first shots at CRT were publicly fired 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 that Villani downplayed. Villani also claimed that CRT had “entered the realm of VMI” and questioned the state funding used to improve diversity efforts at the college.
Villani did not respond to interview requests – then or now – from Inside Higher Education.
But in a letter to Angela Sailor, Virginia’s diversity, equity and inclusion manager, Villani wrote, “VMI has moved quickly in implementing CRT-aligned policies that, in my view, are detrimental to the VMI experience. I ask that you act with a sense of urgency to determine for yourselves whether or not CRT has found its way into VMI.”
The separate anti-CRT petition has a similar tone, asking Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares to halt VMI’s ongoing DEI work pending an investigation into whether CRT is being taught.
A campus spokesperson strongly denied via email that CRT is taught at the college, which is located in the mountains of Virginia and has a long history tied to the Confederacy.
“It is important to note that Mr. Villani is a Texas resident who has not been to VMI in years,” VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt wrote. “He has little understanding of what is really going on here and has his own definition of CRT which is informed by a particular political philosophy. The “CRT” Villani refers to is very basic diversity training designed to help cadets understand that not everyone thinks like them. These are very common exercises that have been used in higher education for years. Cadets are not required to participate, although they are required to attend. Our sophomores, juniors and seniors had to complete an hour of training this academic year. Freshmen had to attend two hours. Despite Mr. Villani’s sadness and misfortune, cadet feedback has been overwhelmingly positive based on post-training surveys.
Wyatt highlighted VMI’s Inclusive Excellence Plan to highlight DEI’s ongoing work, such as recruiting more diverse students, faculty, and staff; providing diversity training to students, employees and the Board of Visitors; and offer DEI educational programs to community organizations outside the college.
Separately, VMI has also worked to minimize Confederate imagery and influence at the college in response to widespread accusations of racism. These efforts included moving a statue of former Confederate general and VMI professor Stonewall Jackson to an off-campus site in the fall of 2020.
Despite challenges from former students, Wins also has plenty of supporters in those ranks. A group calling itself VMI Senior African American Alumni recently signaled their support in an open letter, praising Wins’ leadership and noting that fellow graduates have downplayed incidents of racism that have occurred at VMI.
“It has been disappointing to hear that various former students have downplayed the significance of racial incidents. More so, it has been disheartening to read how some former students have questioned the integrity of [Major General] Wins and members of his administration, unheard of until he was appointed superintendent,” reads the letter, signed by 13 VMI graduates.
DEI’s efforts at VMI are also supported by the Board of Visitors, the college’s governing body.
“The work carried out at the Institute is essential to achieving the objectives set by the Board of Visitors. The readiness and readiness of our cadets for the world we live in has never been more important,” Council Chairman Tom Watjen said in March. “Our graduating cadets today face a very different world from the one we knew when I graduated, a socially and culturally diverse world. Some have suggested that taking the steps we have taken is “woke” or supportive of concepts such as Critical Race Theory. We have a responsibility to educate our cadets on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, but not to indoctrinate. I can assure you that we understand this distinction. I appeal to those in these positions to learn about what is really going on at the Institute and support us as we help ensure our cadets are positioned to succeed in the military, commercial and public sectors. after graduation.
And despite pleas to Youngkin, Wyatt points to an ongoing relationship with the governor’s office that includes working with Virginia’s DEI chief Sailor.
“Our Diversity Manager works closely with Governor Youngkin’s Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion Manager, as well as her counterparts at Virginia’s higher education institutions,” Wyatt said. “In fact, VMI’s Director of Diversity has spent the better part of the past two days delivering DEI training provided by the Governor’s office to all VMI employees.”
Confusion DEI with CRT
Experts suggest that certain nuances are often lost in the alphabet soup of DEI and CRT, sometimes out of genuine confusion over concepts, but sometimes as part of a deliberate attempt to blur the lines.
“Unfortunately, in recent history, it’s not uncommon to find CRT and DEI efforts intermingled,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Leaders in Higher Education. “I think a lot of it has to do with the political environment we find ourselves in right now, one that I think qualifies DEI’s work as critical race theory to rebrand what I think are objections to the efforts of institutions and organizations to combat racism. This is partly objections, and I think backlash, both to the protests and to the advocacy to fight racism in this country.
She described the deliberate amalgamation between CRT and DEI as “the worst of scaremongering”.
Katherine S. Cho, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Miami who has studied institutional accountability, notes that DEI’s work is often reduced to a simple issue of race, despite the fact that it extends to gender, to sexual orientation, first generation status and more. .
She also suggests that often attacks on critical race theory are not even about the concept itself, but rather an attempt to simply shut down conversations about race. The backlash around the CRT often causes universities to lose sight of the DEI’s work amid controversy, she said, noting that institutions are susceptible and easily distracted by such attacks.
“These are scare tactics to create panic in universities, to shut down DEI initiatives,” Cho said.