The Lexington campus of the Virginia Military Institute. Photo courtesy of VMI.

The Virginia Press Association has hired an attorney to conduct an inquiry into whether its top annual award was granted according to contest rules.

A May 31 memo from Executive Director Betsy Edwards to members of the contest committee said the VPA board decided to conduct the inquiry “following a number of recent questions” regarding the award, which was presented May 6 at the annual banquet VPA hosts for award winners.

The 2022 award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service was given to The Cadet, a student newspaper out of Virginia Military Institute. It was the first time in the 75-year history of the award that it went to a student newspaper.

The Cadet had been an official VMI publication before shutting down in 2016. It was resurrected in 2021 with financial help from alumnus Bob Morris, who set up a nonprofit foundation to fund the newspaper’s production. 

The paper, which is not sanctioned by the school as an official student activity, has had a contentious relationship with the VMI administration. 

The paper takes pride in its independence, and former editor James Mansfield explained in an interview that The Cadet didn’t want to be an official student club when he and three other students relaunched it, for fear that the administration would censor the paper. VMI, meanwhile, has said it doesn’t want any editorial say in the newspaper but has concerns that Morris has launched the paper to benefit his own agenda.

The paper won the top journalism award for a package of articles focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion at VMI, which has been a focus since 2020 reports of systemic racism at the 184-year-old military college. In the years since those allegations, the school has begun to reckon with its ties to the Confederacy and has sought to increase diversity under the guidance of superintendent Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, who took over in November 2020 and is the school’s first Black leader.

About 6% of VMI’s 1,600 students are Black, and about 8% are Hispanic or Latino. Less than 14% of the student body are women. 

Though The Cadet’s entry was lauded by the contest judge for its “robust dialogue” on the ongoing reforms at VMI, taken as a whole it is skeptical at best of DEI — or as Gov. Glenn Youngkin has rebranded it, DOI, for diversity, opportunity and inclusion.

(The stories can be viewed in the VPA winners’ gallery or in the PDF document attached to this story.)

The majority of the articles in the entry, which were published in 2022, are credited to the “Cadet Staff” or to anonymous contributors, or are unsigned opinion pieces. One article in the entry is credited “from”

The entry also includes an article about a lawsuit filed against VMI by Yorktown-based Center for Applied Innovation. The firm, which is owned by Morris, had sought a contract to provide DEI training at the school but went on to sue both VMI and the state’s higher education council over efforts to investigate diversity and implement inclusion training at the school. The suit against the council was dismissed; the suit against VMI is pending.   

The article did not disclose Morris’ ownership of CAI. 

That article also cited support for CAI’s lawsuit by the conservative Spirit of VMI PAC, which is not disclosed as an advertiser in the print edition of the paper. 

The political action committee has spent just over $7,265 on ads in the print edition of The Cadet, based on the PAC’s expenditure reporting. They include several full-page ads, some of which have referenced DEI training “struggle sessions” or promote a “wokeness survival guide” via a QR code that links to a video from conservative nonprofit PragerU titled “the DEI Disaster.”

An April 2023 article on CAI’s lawsuit against VMI was updated in late May to include a disclosure about Morris’ ties to the company and the newspaper.

The VPA contest committee, which reviews contest rules each year, will postpone its annual meeting until the review is complete. “Recommended changes to the rules or procedures resulting from the inquiry will need to be discussed by the Contest Committee at its annual meeting,” Edwards wrote in the memo. 

VPA’s board held a special meeting on May 15 to talk about the award. Edwards had said by email on May 23 that the board had unanimously decided to not take action on the journalistic integrity award, which was judged by a single person this year, a member of the Tennessee Press Association. Edwards has declined to provide the name of the judge, saying that VPA does not disclose this information.

Cardinal News also submitted an entry for the award. Last year’s award went to the Virginian-Pilot for its coverage of ongoing racial segregation in Norfolk. 

Conrad Shumadine has been retained to conduct the independent review. Shumandine, a retired attorney based in Norfolk, has a long history of experience in First Amendment cases, including those that have risen to the Supreme Court of Virginia and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Shumadine has not responded to a phone message left Wednesday afternoon.

Morris, who graduated from VMI in 1979 and served as a colonel in the U.S. Army, said in an early May interview that the content of the newspaper is completely student-driven, and that he serves in an administrative capacity. He also said he hasn’t “taken a stand” on DEI, stressing that his company’s lawsuit against VMI was about contract procurement rules, not about “trying to stop or start or change DEI.” 

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at or 540-384-1313.