Youngkin places conservatives on VMI board amid racism and sexism

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In his first major step to shape the future of the nation’s oldest state-supported military college, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) has named four white, mostly conservative members to the board of visitors of the Virginia Military Institute, including a former member who resigned in 2020 just before the vote to remove a statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson from campus.

The 182-year-old school, whose cadets fought and died for the South during the Civil War, has been mired in allegations of racism and sexism that continue to divide alumni into rival camps: those who support the change and those who resist it.

VMI alumni push to reverse diversity reforms, invoking critical race theory

Two of the four new VMI board members named by Youngkin on Thursday are well known in Republican political circles or within the college’s conservative alumni wing.

John Adams, a McGuireWoods attorney who graduated from VMI in 1996, ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for Virginia attorney general in 2017. Adams, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and his firm lawyers were asked by VMI Alumni Agencies to consult on its response to an independent inquiry ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) into college culture. The investigation concluded that the school has a “racist and sexist culture” and needs to change.

A second Youngkin pick is Thomas “Teddy” Gottwald, the former VMI board member. Gottwald, a 1983 VMI graduate, resigned his seat in October 2020 just before the body voted to remove Jackson’s statue from its prominent perch on the Lexington campus. The head of a petroleum additives holding company, Gottwald make a donation $77,500 to Youngkin’s campaign and another $25,000 to the political action committee Spirit of VMI – an alumni group that has denigrated and mocked the investigation and the reforms the college has made in response to the findings of the investigation.

The other two new members of VMI’s board of directors are: C. Ernest Edgar IV, a graduate of VMI in 1987, who is general counsel for an engineering design and construction company called Atkins North America, according to his LinkedIn page, and Meaghan Mobbs, a 2008 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, who is vice president of a consulting and public affairs firm, and worked as a senior political adviser for the campaign of Youngkin, according to his biography on his firm’s website.

Mobbs, a former member of the West Point Visitors’ Council, made news last year when she and other Trump appointees serving on similar boards at the Naval and Air Force Academies were asked by the Biden administration to resign or be fired.

Mobbs refused to resign and tweeted that she found Biden’s decision “inadmissible.”

Adams, Mobbs and Edgar declined interview requests. Gottwald did not return messages seeking comment. In a statement Thursday announcing his selections to VMI and the rest of the state’s public colleges or universities, Youngkin noted that among many of his priorities was “the protection and promotion of freedom of expression , the restoration of the capacity to have a civil speech”.

Youngkin’s selections were highly anticipated by the VMI community.

Some graduates, students and faculty fear the governor could completely overhaul the board — which oversees the school’s budget process and appoints its superintendent — with conservative members that would undo some of the efforts to make VMI more inclusive and diverse. Only 6% of the college’s 1,650 cadets are black, while women make up 14% of the student body.

Kasey Meredith assumed leadership of the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets during the change of command parade on May 14, 2021. (Video: Virginia Military Institute)

“I am very unhappy with this chain of events,” said Shah Rahman, a 1997 graduate who helped lead the campaign for VMI reforms. “We worried about a reversal of progress even before Youngkin was elected, but especially now. The other side won’t give up until the statue of Jackson is back on campus. They didn’t believe in the investigation, and they are completely against everything we stood for and fought for.

Matt Daniel, who helped launch and chaired the Spirit of VMI PAC, did not return messages seeking comment. In a statement released on Friday, the PAC said it “applauds” the nominations and said it recommended two of the four picks, without saying who. “But all four reflect a respect and understanding for the educational and social rubrics and traditions that have made VMI great,” the statement read.

During the gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin appeared to criticize Northam for ordering the inquiry in an interview he gave to Daniel.

Youngkin also denounced critical race theory and issued an executive order once he took office banning Virginia public schools from teaching systemic racism. More recently, he has begun to root the word “equity” out of state government policies.

Youngin’s selections made VMI’s board of directors slightly less racially diverse by replacing a black member, Sean Lanier, a member of VMI’s class of 1994. Lanier was nominated by Northam to replace Gottwald in 2020. VMI’s new board composition includes nine white males; four black men; two white women; a Hispanic male; and a Native American woman.

“I wish I had stayed on the board,” said Lanier, a retired Army major who runs an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit called Resolve Solutions that helps college students minorities nationwide with their applications for colleges and ROTC scholarships. During his two years on the board, Lanier served on its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. He also helps administer an unofficial VMI Facebook group for minority college alumni.

“When the former superintendent [retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III] asked me nearly a decade ago to help recruit more African Americans to attend VMI, the percentage of black VMI students who commissioned was in the single digits and, now, over 50% black students are commissioning,” Lanier said. “I’m very proud of it, but there’s still work to be done.”

After Northam ordered the investigation in the fall of 2020, Peay, the longtime white superintendent, resigned. He was succeeded by retired Army Major General Cedric T. Wins, a member of the VMI Class of 1985, who became the school’s first black superintendent.

Youngkin’s board announcements came shortly after signing the state budget that injected more money than usual into VMI and every other public four-year college or university in the state. State. For the 2022-23 academic year, VMI’s overall budget jumped to $111.3 million, including approximately $29 million in public funds. The previous year, the overall budget was $99.5 million, of which approximately $21.5 million came from public funds.

One reason for the jump is because lawmakers agreed to give VMI an additional $3.7 million in general fund revenue in response to the college’s request to pay for academic support and wellness initiatives. of cadets, as well as the reforms recommended by the state survey: the hiring of a large number of new employees in the offices of admissions, title IX and the chief of diversity and an effort to rename or contextualize campus Confederate tributes.

Ultimately, VMI’s $3.7 million allocation for its “One Corps, One VMI” initiatives pleased school officials, according to college spokesman Bill Wyatt. But the language of appropriation seems to come with a slight caveat: The money cannot be used to fund the expansion of the college’s main diversity office, Wyatt said.

The General Assembly said the money is intended to address several initiatives, such as expanding VMI’s Title IX office, rebranding its Confederate memorials and adjusting staff salaries. But the credit omits on the list of recipients any mention of VMI’s expansion of its main office of diversity.

The office is led by diversity manager Jamica Love, the college’s highest-ranking black woman. Briana Williams, who is also a black woman, was recently hired as the college’s assistant director of diversity. Wyatt said three of the four diversity office positions have been filled so far.

“It was an expense that we hoped the state would fund,” Wyatt said. “But in the absence of state funding, we will find a way to fund it. We appreciate the General Assembly and the Governor for what they have provided this year. Anytime you go into a budget session and come out with more money than before, that’s a good thing.

Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), one of three members of the General Assembly who helped finalize the budget between the two chambers, said in an interview that VMI might be able to use a part of the $3.7 million to cover the costs of its diversity office.

“My interpretation of the language is that VMI can clearly use the $3.7 million for the items listed, but the language would not prevent them from using the money for the expansion of the diversity office if it remained money,” he said. . “The intent of House Republicans was to say that the expansion of VMI’s diversity office is not the starting point and that they wanted to fund the other elements first.”

Barker said he doesn’t fully understand why House Republicans don’t want to include the expansion of VMI’s diversity office among the expressly stated recipients of the $3.7 million.

“There wasn’t really a meaningful explanation from the Republicans, but it was clear that [allowing VMI to use the money for the diversity office] was something they were concerned about,” Barker said. “We really had to compromise on some things.”

House Appropriations Chairman Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), who was negotiating with Barker and Senator Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, over the final agreement, did not return any messages. .

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