Virginia Military Institute (VMI) Superintendent, retired four-star Army General J.H. Binford Peay III (’62), resigned on Monday. Peay shared that Governor Ralph Northam prompted the resignation.
“On Friday, 23 October 2020, the Governor’s Chief of Staff conveyed that the Governor and certain legislative leaders had lost confidence in my leadership as Superintendent of Virginia Military Institute and desired my resignation.”
The general’s resignation followed allegations featured in a story by The Washington Post. The article cited six incidents relating to race in the past five years as proof of “relentless racism.”
Peay has condemned racism and discrimination consistently, as well as supported diversity at VMI. The retired general became superintendent in 2003; in recognition of his many leadership accomplishments at the institute, VMI’s Board of Visitors established an endowment in his honor. It has achieved $28 million in funds for cadets and faculty.
The Post also relied on the history of the school’s first superintendent, General Francis Henney Smith, as proof of “relentless racism.” Smith was an abolitionist who believed freed slaves should be resettled back in Africa. Additionally, the article recounted some strains that occurred during initial years of the school’s desegregation.
One of the accusers the article named was William “Will” Bunton, a redshirt junior on VMI’s football team. Bunton alleged that racism is so pervasive at VMI that his waking thoughts always question his enrollment at the school. The student-athlete also alleged that he’d stepped out of line to leave Vice President Mike Pence’s speech this fall, and subsequently endured three weeks’ confinement to campus, demerits, and detentions.
Another, Keniya Lee (’19), alleged that a professor glorified her father’s Ku Klux Klan (KKK) membership. None of her classmates would sign an account verifying what Lee alleged had occurred. She also claimed that her general feeling of not belonging at VMI gave her PTSD.
The Post also included one anonymous student who reported that another student threatened to lynch him. The student who made the threat has since been expelled, according to the report.
In response to these allegations, Northam issued a letter informing VMI that it would be undergoing a third-party review for racism. Northam is a 1981 graduate of VMI; he faced controversy briefly last year for photos of him either in blackface or KKK robes circa 1984.
Immediately, the institution responded in a letter to Northam that it is not racist and pledged full cooperation for a review.
“Virtually all colleges in the 50 states can point to inappropriate behavior by their students or faculty members. However, systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true.”
Less than a week later, Peay tendered his resignation. The letter totaled five sentences, in which he explained that he resigned at Northam’s request and would continue to support VMI.
The same day of Peay’s resignation, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax disavowed VMI for its “culture of racial discrimination and oppression,” and called for all public funding to cease.
“We should not be allocating $19 million annually to a VMI that steadfastly refuses to change at a time when lower income students and diverse communities are refused free lunches and adequate educational opportunities. The ‘living monuments’ to the confederacy must come down just like their bronze and stone counterparts.”
It is unclear as to what or who those “living monuments” are that Fairfax mentioned. The lieutenant governor also referenced his campaign for governor in his letter.
“If the symbols of racism and the culture they encourage at VMI are not removed by the time I take office in 2022, they will be during my Administration.”
A VMI parent of an alumni, Doug DeRito, shared with The Virginia Star that he was disappointed by Northam’s conduct.
“I think it’s unfair that they basically forced him to resign. Not only did they ask him to resign, it was by the Chief of Staff. Northam didn’t even have the professional courtesy to call and talk to him about it.”
DeRito added that the cadets he knew never experienced racism in their presence there, though he did affirm the students’ rights to speak up about what happened to them. Rather, he stated the focus should be on Peay’s treatment in light of these allegations.
“First and foremost, General Peay is an American hero. He retired as a four-star general in the U.S. Army, served his country well. He’s impacted a lot of cadets, both past and present military leaders in the armed forces including my son, in a positive way.”
Attorney and Richmond City Republican Committee Chairman Hayden Fisher (’95) told The Star that what The Post described doesn’t reflect VMI as a whole.
“I’m sure there are incidents that occur, but it was never an issue when I was there. No one has ever told me that they experienced racism while they were there. I think systemic racism and incidental racism are two different things. I think VMI’s been proactive in increasing diversity in participation and its core. You’re always going to have a bad apple: but that’s incidental racism.”
Fisher added that he’s done civil rights work in his twenty years as a lawyer. His experience led him to wonder why the governor was getting involved when the legal system handles discrimination allegations.
“Why are the executive and legislative branches getting involved in an investigation at VMI? We have passed laws and have courts that will handle those cases. It’s a witch-hunt led by all Democrats. There’s no effort to be bipartisan. Racism exists, it does. But it exists in pockets – it’s not systemic. The way to address it is through the courts.”
Another VMI graduate, Lee Barnes (’69), told The Star that he didn’t discount the individuals’ experiences. However, he stated that it was normal for the institute’s rigor and challenges to cause cadets to feel singled out at times – even he experienced it.
“I understand that General Peay has put the ‘M’ back in ‘VMI.’ There’s not a person there that doesn’t have the feeling or the impression that someone doesn’t have it in for them. Everybody feels that at some point. General Peay really came in and wanted to make sure it was a military institute.”
In a Facebook post, State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) admonished Northam and the Democratic Party for vilifying VMI.
“The attack on VMI is complete BS. Just more cancel culture from the Marxist Democrat Party of Virginia who has already weaponized our public schools, colleges and universities to indoctrinate our kids. If racism were truly an issue then current Democratic Governor Northam and my Democratic opponent for Governor 2021 Jennifer Carroll Foy, both of whom were both indoctrinated at VMI, need to resign. The racist Democratic Party of Virginia had better clear the log out of its eye before it takes the speck out of VMI’s.”
Tuesday, Northam announced that the state would direct $116 million in CARES funding to higher education. It is unclear whether VMI will be excluded in light of Fairfax’s threats to revoke government funding.
VMI has not announced a replacement superintendent at this time. Brigadier General Robert “Bob” Moreschi will serve as the Acting Superintendent.
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