Virginia’s top journalism award was given Saturday to a student newspaper for its coverage of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Virginia Military Institute. The judge lauded the students for their bravery in taking on a topic that has shrouded the Lexington institute in controversy since 2021, when VMI began to respond to revelations about a pervasive culture of racism at the school.
The Cadet, which takes the same name as VMI’s former student newspaper, is written by students but funded by a nonprofit led by a VMI alumnus who has filed two lawsuits regarding the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion — or DEI — contracts. Bob Morris, a retired U.S. Army colonel and business owner in Yorktown, helped relaunch the paper after it was shut down in 2016 because of what he described as interference by the school.
VMI has offered to give The Cadet club status, but only if the cadet in charge certifies students have full editorial control and a faculty adviser, according to a spokesperson there.
On Saturday, two cadets attended the Virginia Press Association’s annual banquet in Short Pump and to a mostly standing ovation accepted the year’s highest award for community service.
The Cadet was lauded by VPA, which said the outcome of the paper’s continued reporting was a “robust dialogue” among cadets and faculty, “free speech and tolerance of alternative views” and “a reduction in the administration’s attempts to suppress or control the student newspaper.”
It was the first time a student newspaper has received the top honor in the award’s 75-year history. Last year, the Virginian-Pilot received the award for its coverage of ongoing racial segregation in Norfolk. The Cadet also won six other awards.
VMI came under scrutiny in 2020 when The Washington Post wrote about numerous racist incidents reported among students at the school. The reporting led to a leadership change at the institute, and to then-Gov. Ralph Northam, a VMI alumnus, ordering an investigation of the claims and the campus’ culture.
The current superintendent, Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, is the first Black leader of VMI. He has been open about a need to increase diversity at the school. But the push for DEI on campus has been divisive, particularly among VMI alumni who say that pervasive racism doesn’t exist at the school and that DEI training is unnecessary. The most recent development in the DEI battle was an appearance on VMI’s campus by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s chief diversity appointee who declared that “DEI is dead.”
James Mansfield, one of two top editors for The Cadet during the 2021-2022 school year, was one of several cadets who spoke with school administrators about restarting the campus newspaper after connecting with several alumni who were also interested in a student paper revival. The new publication would have a faculty adviser, the students said, but they didn’t want to be held to VMI’s rules for cadet clubs.
“We wanted to be purely objective and didn’t want to have any institutional pressure on what we produced,” Mansfield said. So they ran the paper on their own, reporting primarily by phone and working in their barracks rooms since cadets must get permission to leave campus. Alumni like Morris, who established the Cadet Foundation to support the newspaper financially, helped them get set up.
The Cadet Foundation, which says on its website it supports the newspaper “as well as the related activities supporting cadets and alumni,” raised about $8,000 in 2021, its initial year. Its website encourages members of the class of 1974 to donate to the foundation, instead of to the traditional gift to VMI’s Alumni Agencies, in honor of its 50th reunion.
Mansfield, who is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he thinks The Cadet won the community service award from VPA because of the paper’s difficulty in working with school administration. He said the students had support from people outside the school like Morris, Lexington News-Gazette publisher Matt Paxton, and VMI alumni who had worked on The Cadet newspaper in previous decades, when the newspaper was officially connected to the school.
The Cadet’s award-winning DEI coverage included articles on meetings of the school’s DEI committee and commemorating the 25th anniversary of women being admitted to VMI. The coverage also included a cadet’s opinion piece arguing that changing systems at the school too quickly would dilute the traditions that students experience at the rigorous military college.
Of the 15 articles judged, 10 were written wholly or in part by unnamed parties, including several by “The Cadet Editorial Staff.” The byline on one article, about 19th century VMI alum Sir Moses Ezekiel, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, is credited as “From jewish-history.com.” (The stories can be viewed in the VPA winners’ gallery or in the PDF document attached to this story.)
Reporting last year by Inside Higher Ed about tensions between the newspaper and the school alleged that alumni made at least some decisions at The Cadet. That allegation was based on an email from a student claiming that Morris has written for the paper under the “Cadet Staff” byline.
Morris said he serves in a support role to the students, who write the paper’s content. He handles elements of the business side of the operation, including soliciting donations from alumni and readers. (Cadets on campus at VMI can get the newspaper for free in the barracks approximately twice per month, but the online edition of The Cadet is behind a paywall; online access costs $75 per year.)
Morris and Thomas Wilson, the other alumnus listed as a mentor to the editorial team, help connect the students to journalist mentors when necessary, Morris said. “The whole idea is they need to focus on learning to be journalists, writing and running the newspaper.”
Mansfield also said that during his time at the paper, the editorial staff of cadets had complete control over the content of the newspaper. “That was a big point of contention with VMI,” he said. He said Morris “never told us what to write” or influenced the direction of The Cadet’s reporting.
But Morris has had some time in the spotlight — a connection that hasn’t been spelled out clearly in the pages of The Cadet: A firm he owns has filed two lawsuits related to VMI’s efforts to diversify.
In the first case, in 2021, Morris’ company, a consulting firm called the Center for Applied Innovation, sued Virginia’s higher education council for favoring Barnes & Thornburg, the firm selected to conduct the investigation of the school ordered by Northam. CAI applied but claimed in the suit it was put at a disadvantage to compete for the contract.
That case was dismissed. In a second case, filed in 2022 against VMI, CAI claimed that improper procurement practices were used to award a contract for DEI training. It also claimed that the DEI training violates Youngkin’s policies against critical race theory. That case is ongoing.
In articles about the suits by The Cadet staff, including those included in the judging packet for the VPA awards, it is not disclosed that the owner of CAI is listed on the masthead of The Cadet newspaper as a senior mentor.
When asked why The Cadet didn’t disclose Morris’ relationship to the paper in its articles about the lawsuits, Morris said there’s a “firewall” between himself and the cadets regarding the pending legal issue. “I’m not allowed to talk to them about it, and they do their own reporting on it based on what they can get from publicly available documents.” But Morris said “the connection is clear” to anyone who reads the articles and related documents that The Cadet has provided on its website.
Mansfield, who graduated prior to The Cadet publishing the articles about the lawsuit, said that the editorial staff didn’t have formal ethical guidelines for their newsroom to follow, and that he and co-editor-in-chief Claire Curtis predominantly operated on their “gut feelings.”
Bill Wyatt, director of communications and marketing at VMI, said the school doesn’t want editorial control over a student newspaper. He said that to be formally recognized by the school — which would grant the newspaper use of office space at VMI — the cadet in charge of the student organization would need to certify that students have full editorial control and a faculty adviser. “Thus far, they’ve been unwilling to agree to those things,” he said.
VMI doesn’t have a journalism program, but Wyatt said a dean had given permission for professors at nearby Washington & Lee University to serve in that role for VMI students.
The newspaper in its current iteration has garnered support from the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which issued a letter to VMI defending The Cadet at the request of the newspaper’s student staff.
Relationships between college newspapers and the campuses they cover can vary widely. Some publications receive funding through student fees collected by the institution, while some rely on outside contributions. The University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily, for instance, is a nonprofit led by a volunteer board.
It’s not unusual for alumni to be involved in collegiate student media, said Barbara Allen, director of college programming at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism and media literacy organization. Those alumni may serve as advisers to the student journalists, alongside faculty members and other advisers — who may or may not influence the independence the publication seeks to uphold.
“The question is, what are the agreed-upon principles?” Allen said. “Is there a guiding framework or a process in place to say, ‘Here’s how we do things and why’?”
The Cadet Foundation website includes guiding principles including transparency, accountability and civility.
Cardinal News is a member of the Virginia Press Association and also entered the contest for the top award.