Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is replacing bronze-and-stone symbols of yesterday with flesh-and-bone symbols of today. The politically besieged state-run college is betting they stand longer than their predecessors. VMI’s future — ahead of a controversial, soon-to-be concluded investigation of systemic racism — could depend on it.
Just over a week ago, VMI — where slave-owning, lemon-sucking Stonewall Jackson taught and whose likeness on the parade grounds loomed until December for 108 years as a tribute to the institute’s Confederate pedigree — installed for the first time a woman as commander of its 1,700-member student body, the Corps of Cadets.
At 5-foot-2, Kasey Meredith — an international studies major with a minor in Spanish and a 3.6 GPA, who will wear the five stripes and feather-plumed shako of regimental commander — is an emblem of change at a school long resistant to it. Amid intense racial, gender and cultural sensitivities, VMI is facing mounting pressure to change even more.
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“I do know this role is monumental,” said Meredith, crediting, in part, her achievement to the women who preceded her at VMI, which went co-ed in 1997 after the U.S. Supreme Court junked its males-only admissions policy. “It is symbolic. I was able to do something for the classes before that have done so much for me.”
Selected by VMI’s top administrators, Meredith, who doesn’t think of herself as a female commander but as a commander who is female, said that with the investigation, the school will demonstrate — as it has before, sometimes grudgingly — that it can adapt. She attributes that to a military culture that relies on a firm discipline to instill the flexibility demanded on the battlefield — and in the board room.
Meredith, an affianced, aspiring Marine intelligence officer in the Class of 2022 and who follows by 40 years the first Black regimental commander at VMI, the last Virginia college to desegregate, isn’t the only sign that things are different in Lexington.
They could be very different after investigators submit their findings to the Northam administration June 1, if not sooner.
Since December, VMI has been led by its first Black superintendent: Cedric Wins, a 1985 graduate and retired two-star Army general. He stepped in when Binnie Peay was, in effect, kicked out after 17 years, criticized as wedded to VMI’s old ways by Gov. Ralph Northam, a 1981 alumnus hyper-woke after his racial embarrassment in 2019, and Black political leadership.
“The timing of all this is significant,” said Charles F. Bryan Jr., a Southern historian graduated from VMI in 1969 and — unlike many who survived the institute — a liberal Democrat. “It’s the right move on the part of VMI. It’s probably later than it should have been but it’s the right step.”
It was preceded by others, including the removal of the Jackson statue. All are part of a desperate effort by VMI to get ahead of the $1 million report by the Barnes & Thornburg law firm that, the school frets, will propose it weaken or drop its defining features: the one-strike-and-you’re-out honor system and the sometimes-brutal, first-year assimilation process, the “rat line.” Both are depicted as weighted against students of color.
This past week, the policy, political and personal disagreements triggered by the investigation erupted in full view.
Thomas Slater Jr., a Richmond lawyer, prominent VMI alum and Northam confidant, quit the state’s higher education advisory board, suggesting the governor and others are unfairly railroading the school. Slater’s gripe: That despite a lawyer v. lawyer debate over whether the state’s contract with Barnes & Thornburg allows it, Wins should be briefed ahead of time on the firm’s findings to provide background on how recommended changes could — or should — be implemented.
Because the best defense is a good offense — and perhaps expecting the worst — VMI, through its alumni group, is staging on Sunday an online town hall at which Wins is expected to address the feared storm ahead.
Barnes & Thornburg is sensitive to its role as the heavy. In a May 13 letter to state officials, it chided VMI for erecting obstacles to investigators — “In short, VMI has been cooperative on its own terms” — but it also described the school as a “unique and treasured institution” that is not above improvement. This is a point forgotten or overlooked.
Bryan, in a speech at VMI shortly before women entered, said the school had made significant changes since opening in 1839 that — while disputed at the time — ultimately strengthened it: adopting the honor system in 1908; expanding in 1912 a curriculum rooted in science and engineering to the liberal arts; making military commissions mandatory until the 1980s; and admitting Blacks in 1968.
Also, beginning in 1859, opening admissions, once limited to Virginians, to students anywhere. That’s how a Pennsylvanian named George C. Marshall, the World War II military leader, Cold War diplomat and Nobel laureate, found his way to VMI.
But so did another Pennsylvanian who would make history: Kasey Meredith.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @RTDSchapiro.