The Virginia Military Institute has concluded an internal investigation into its relationship with the independent student newspaper, The Cadet. But it won’t be releasing the findings of that review, according to a spokesperson from the state military college.
The newspaper, which was restarted in 2021 after the school-sanctioned version shuttered in 2016, gained statewide attention in May when 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 had sued VMI, and for including news articles with no author names attached.
Teddy Gottwald, a board of visitors member who sits on the executive committee, originally raised the issue in a July committee meeting. He accused institute spokesperson Bill Wyatt of telling the VPA and publications, including Cardinal News, that The Cadet was not independently produced by students.
Wyatt said during that meeting that the accusation wasn’t true, and that he’d only questioned a separate award that The Cadet had received from VPA in May. That award honored an article about the Cadet Counseling Center that the institute had raised accuracy concerns about when it was published in April 2022.
Following the discussion, the VMI Board of Visitors in August asked the state attorney general’s office to review whether VMI had supplied outside reporters with information about The Cadet after it won VPA’s journalistic integrity award. Because VMI is a state school, the attorney general’s office is its legal counsel.
But about a week after that announcement, VMI decided to handle the investigation internally. Superintendent Cedric Wins requested the inspector general’s office review the issue.
“The Inspector General’s investigation into activity surrounding The Cadet newspaper awards has been concluded,” Michelle Ellwood, the school’s assistant director of news and editorial services, said by email Wednesday. She added that “the report and its findings are not subject to public disclosure” under state law, and that if the board of visitors is briefed on the findings,“it would be done during a closed session in accordance with state law.”
When asked if the report could be released with relevant personnel information redacted, Ellwood said it wouldn’t be possible to do so “without deducing the personal identity of one of the subjects of the report.”
The executive committee of the board of visitors met Tuesday, but the student newspaper was not on the agenda for the public portion of the meeting. The committee spent about 90 minutes in closed session, which is reserved for discussion of personnel matters or consulting with legal counsel.
At the full board of visitors meeting in September, Gottwald distributed copies of The Cadet and recommended that board members read articles detailing the ongoing battle between the newspaper staff and VMI administration.
One of the articles he pointed out was headlined “Is VMI Where Freedom of Speech Goes to Die?” It included a detailed timeline of events when VMI allegedly interfered with The Cadet and cast doubt on the honor of students who worked on the newspaper after learning about its awards.
The timeline closely mirrors one that Gottwald had referenced during the July committee meeting, according to documents obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. It’s unclear who prepared the timeline, but The Cadet article notes that it was “collectively developed” by staff, alumni and “other supporters who assisted with research.”
Gottwald has not responded to a request for comment sent Wednesday to his VMI email address.
When concerns 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 VPA.
VMI has had a strained relationship with the newspaper since it was relaunched with assistance from alumnus Bob Morris in 2021. Critics of the newspaper have accused Morris of writing some of the content, but Morris has said he serves merely as an adviser to the students.
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 had applied for the contract but did not make it to the final consideration round.
In October, a Rockbridge County judge ordered VMI to pay Morris’ company, the Center for Applied Innovation, $15,000 in legal fees. But the case remains active, awaiting a final decision from the judge on whether the lawsuit is moot because VMI did not go through with awarding the training contract.
Morris is also president and treasurer of Cadet Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports the student newspaper. The foundation launched an online petition in early August demanding that VMI support The Cadet and initiate an independent review of the institute’s actions regarding the paper. The petition has nearly 2,500 signatures as of Nov. 1.
“Neither the paper nor the foundation has any comment on matters we know nothing about,” Morris said by email Wednesday afternoon. The newspaper staff has not responded to an emailed request for comment.
VMI administration hasn’t granted the newspaper a permit allowing it to operate on campus, but met with students from the newspaper staff in September to discuss their relationship, according to an article in The Cadet.