The board of the Virginia Press Association met Monday to discuss awards it granted earlier this month to The Cadet, a student newspaper at the Virginia Military Institute that received the group’s highest award for its coverage of diversity issues on campus.
The meeting came less than a week after Cardinal News reported that the newspaper had recently been reestablished by an alumnus who has sued the school over a contract related to diversity, equity and inclusion training.
VPA Executive Director Betsy Edwards said by email that the board “agreed that no action needed to be taken” regarding The Cadet’s awards.
The Cadet won the Virginia Press Association Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service for a package of content focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, at the state military college. It’s an award with a 75-year history, and The Cadet is the first student newspaper to receive it.
Edwards didn’t say who requested the May 15 board meeting, or whether the decision to not take action was unanimous among the nine board members.
Jim Maxwell, VPA board chair and Bristol-based president of Lee Enterprises Western Virginia group, did not respond to a voicemail and an email message on Wednesday. The other board members were contacted by either email or phone; one confirmed that the meeting had occurred but referred questions to Maxwell. The rest had not responded by late Wednesday.
A press release from VPA following the May 6 awards ceremony said the outcome of the paper’s continued reporting on DEI included 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.”
Comments about The Cadet’s submission written by the award’s judge were read aloud at the banquet: “This is as clear an operational definition of journalism fulfilling one of its primary functions by providing a public forum for the discussion of ideas important to the community it serves as I have heard.”
Of the 15 articles judged, 10 were written wholly or in part by unnamed parties, including several by “The Cadet Editorial Staff.”
The same content that was judged for the integrity award also received a third-place award in a feature writing category. (The stories can be viewed in the VPA winners’ gallery or in the PDF document attached to this story.)
VPA declined to disclose the names of the judges who reviewed The Cadet’s contest entries.
Entries for the main VPA contest are submitted through an online portal, where volunteer judges from other states (this year, the Tennessee Press Association) review and rank submissions. Entries for the public service award are emailed directly to VPA and are judged by “journalists from around the country,” Edwards said.
The association has not responded to additional questions about how judges for the top awards are selected.
The public service award, according to VPA, “stresses editorial leadership as well as community service above and beyond a member’s circulation area.” Entries are judged in part on whether they made “significant effort beyond the member’s routine scope.”
Cardinal News also submitted an entry for the top award.
Several years of scrutiny, and turmoil
VMI has been under scrutiny since 2020, when claims of numerous racist incidents affecting students at the school came to light. Reporting primarily by The Washington Post led to a leadership change at the institute and an investigation into the claims and the campus’ culture.
Current superintendent Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, the first Black leader of VMI, has been open about the need to increase diversity. But Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s chief diversity appointee last month visited VMI’s campus, where he declared that “DEI is dead.”
Youngkin spoke at commencement for the class of 2023 at VMI this week, where he briefly praised The Cadet’s VPA awards.
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 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 due to what he described as interference by the school. VMI’s spokesperson said the earlier iteration of the newspaper closed due to lack of student interest.
In Cadet articles about lawsuits tied to Morris, including those included in the award submission, the newspaper does not disclose that Morris is also the lead mentor for the newspaper.
The Cadet and its parent foundation, The Cadet Foundation, were established in summer 2021, around the same time a third party completed a state-ordered investigation into claims of systemic racism at VMI and began to solicit proposals to conduct diversity training on campus.
Morris’ company, the Center for Applied Innovation, sought the contract, which was awarded to another company. Morris sued VMI in April 2022, claiming it violated procurement procedures during the selection process. The case is still pending. A previous suit brought by CAI against Virginia’s higher education council regarding DEI contracts to investigate VMI was dismissed.
Along with funding the student newspaper, The Cadet Foundation solicits donations from alumni as an alternative to VMI’s official alumni fundraising efforts. It raised about $8,000 in its initial six months, according to tax records.
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.
Bill Wyatt, the head of communications at VMI, has also expressed concern about whether students on the newspaper staff are truly independent of alumni influence. The college has stated that it doesn’t wish to control the student group but cannot grant its staff extra time in cadets’ highly regimented schedules to work on the paper unless it can verify the students have editorial independence.
Morris and former Cadet editor James Mansfield have both said that all content is created independently of the newspaper’s mentors, which include Morris, VMI alumni Thomas Wilson, and Matt Paxton, the publisher of the Lexington News-Gazette.