Smith Hall at the Virginia Military Institute. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

The state attorney general’s office will not investigate allegations that the Virginia Military Institute facilitated negative reports about an independent student newspaper, the Lexington school said this week.

Tom Watjen, president of the school’s board of visitors, announced Aug. 7 that he had asked the assistant attorney general assigned to the institute to look into whether VMI had supplied reporters with information about The Cadet newspaper after it won the top annual award from the Virginia Press Association. The package of stories that won was largely critical of the military college’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and came under scrutiny for failing to disclose that its alumni mentor owns a company that sued VMI, and for including news articles with no author names attached.

Because VMI is a state school, the attorney general’s office is its legal counsel.

But an update posted Aug. 16 from Watjen stated: “After further consideration, we have chosen to handle this matter in the normal course of business, and I am discussing with [Superintendent] Maj. Gen. Wins his plans for doing so.” 

Board member Teddy Gottwald had raised the issue in a July board of visitors meeting, where he accused institute spokesperson Bill Wyatt of telling VPA and publications including Cardinal News that The Cadet was not independently produced by students.

Watjen and Gottwald are both VMI alumni.

The Office of the Attorney General did not provide a comment by publication time Friday. Wyatt said by email that “A number of factors led to the decision to handle the matter internally” but did not provide further details.

When concern arose regarding the student newspaper’s VPA win, the press association hired a retired First Amendment attorney to determine whether the association had followed its own rules for its annual contest judging. The report found no wrongdoing on the part of the press association.

VMI has had a strained relationship with the newspaper since it was relaunched by alumnus Bob Morris in 2021. VMI hasn’t given the newspaper a permit — essentially its blessing to operate on campus — because it says it doesn’t have assurance that students create the publication independent of its alumni mentors. Morris has said he serves merely as an adviser to the students.

The Cadet Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports the student newspaper, launched an online petition Aug. 1 demanding that VMI support The Cadet and initiate an independent review of the institute’s actions regarding the paper. 

A review by the attorney general’s office would have been a conflict of interest, an Aug. 8 update to the petition stated, because the attorney assigned to VMI is defending the school in a case against Morris. Morris sued VMI in spring 2022 claiming that the school had violated procurement policy when it considered firms to provide diversity training on campus. Morris’ consulting firm applied for the contract but did not make it to the final consideration round.

The petition had more than 1,500 signatures as of Friday.

“We continue to support a full, open, transparent investigation by a truly independent entity,” Morris said by email late Friday. 

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