Gov. Glenn Youngkin largely avoided politics on Tuesday as he spoke to just over 300 new graduates of the Virginia Military Institute, a campus that’s been eclipsed by controversy over the past few years, including in recent weeks.
In a speech that focused on the values instilled in the cadets of the state-supported military college, Youngkin called upon the mission of VMI to guide the graduates in their careers in the military or private sector.
“You live by a code,” Youngkin said. “A code that incorporates words like integrity, character, respect. A code that stands against prejudice, hate and oppression.”
The governor’s speech was punctuated by frequent bursts of applause.
Youngkin visited the campus two weeks ago to visit with cadets and prepare for his commencement speech.
But it was a speech by one of his appointees just a few days prior to that visit that drew a critical eye to the campus once again, after years of scrutiny over reports of systemic racism.
On April 21, Youngkin’s chief diversity officer, Martin Brown, declared in a speech at VMI that “DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] is dead.”
According to a Washington Post report and video of the speech, Brown said: “We’re not going to bring that cow up anymore. It’s dead. It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse, civility, treating — living the golden rule, right?”
Various groups have called for Brown to resign, including the Virginia NAACP and the state’s legislative Black and Latino caucuses. Former Gov. Doug Wilder has also called for Brown to step down.
Youngkin’s predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam, ordered an investigation into claims of racist and sexist practices baked into the culture of the school after reports of discrimination in 2020. VMI has worked since to implement DEI training, a concept that Youngkin has generally opposed since taking over in early 2022. Under Youngkin’s orders, the state now refers to DEI as “diversity, opportunity and inclusion” or DOI.
The state college has seen an administrative overhaul and has worked to implement diversity training, which has roiled segments of the alumni base that claim the need for changes at VMI are overblown.
Of the 1,500 students at VMI for the 2022-2023 school year, fewer than 400 were not white, according to state data. The school has struggled to bring up enrollment numbers in recent years, and its alumni office missed its recent fundraising goals by a significant margin.
The class of 2023 endured dual challenges, with the investigation of campus culture occurring concurrently with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This class is unlike any other,” Youngkin said. “You have endured the pandemic. You have dealt with distractions that were not of your own making.”
He also claimed he was the cadets’ favorite governor, in part because during his visit a few weeks ago he granted them amnesty from some minor infractions they had accrued.
The class, which started with 515 students four years ago, is completing its time at VMI with 53% moving on to commissioned service in the military, across all branches and including the Space Force.
Perhaps the governor’s most outwardly political statement came when Youngkin pointed out four graduates in the class who will go on to military service in Taiwan. Those graduates, he said, are “ready to defend your home against oppression from the People’s Republic of China. Please know that we stand with you.”
Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, who also spoke, is the school’s first Black superintendent. He took over in spring 2021, succeeding General J.H. Binford Peay, who resigned in fall 2020. Wins also avoided directly addressing the school’s struggles, instead noting that the corps “is on strong footing.”
“One of the things I’d like you to take away as you graduate is my recollection of the turmoil about our culture that was imposed upon the entire corps, and my message to you upon my arrival,” Wins said. “Those challenges were never about you. … Nonetheless, I asked you to hold the narrative and let people see who you really are as cadets of character who embody an oath that few if any colleges could come close to living up to. You did so magnificently.”
Among the praises shared with the graduates and their families today, Youngkin singled out The Cadet newspaper, which received seven awards from the Virginia Press Association earlier this month. The awards included the group’s top annual prize for journalistic integrity and public service.
The newspaper, which was revived in 2021 with assistance from an alumnus who recently sued the college over a DEI-related contract, submitted a package of content about diversity, equity and inclusion that included unsigned opinion pieces. The newspaper is not sanctioned by the school, and the paper’s parent foundation has launched a campaign to solicit donations from alumni outside of the official alumni fundraising efforts.
But the focus on the student newspaper was brief, as Youngkin quickly turned his attention to meals at VMI’s Crozet Hall. The governor said he’d heard resoundingly from cadets that the dining hall menu had improved, and congratulated the campus dining leadership for their accomplishments, to cheers and laughter from the crowd.