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Virginia Military Institute Leader Resigns After Allegations Of Racism On Campus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The country's oldest public military college is in upheaval today. The superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute has resigned after allegations of systemic racism throughout the campus. The shakeup comes after Virginia's governor ordered an investigation last week into the treatment of Black cadets at VMI. Whittney Evans of member station VPM in Richmond has been following the story and joins us now.

Hi, Whittney.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about how these allegations surfaced and what's happened since then.

EVANS: Yeah. A recent Washington Post article actually shed light on some of the experiences of current and former Black VMI students and what they described as threats of lynching by other cadets, a professor who sort of wistfully recalled her father's involvement with the Ku Klux Klan and the school's general reverence of the Confederacy. After the story came out, I spoke to a state representative, Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, about her time at VMI, and she echoed a lot of these concerns and called for change.

Governor Ralph Northam and other state leaders sent a letter to the VMI board last week calling the reports appalling and said that it was clear that the school isn't doing enough to address the issue. So Northam ordered an investigation. And I should point out that the governor himself graduated from VMI in 1981. And that led us to this morning, when the board announced the school's superintendent, Gen. Binford Peay, would step down.

SHAPIRO: And so what did the board say about the superintendent's departure?

EVANS: It's interesting. There's no mention of the accusations or the governor's investigation in the press release. In fact, the board president expresses deep regret over Peay's resignation, and he calls him a great American patriot and hero. Peay had been in charge for the past 17 years. The VMI president also calls on alumni to keep focusing on the school's mission and supporting the institution.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like this is a deep-seated cultural problem that goes far beyond a single leader. Has VMI responded to the allegations?

EVANS: VMI has, but they haven't granted an interview so far. The college did send out a letter responding to the governor's call for an investigation. The president says sort of boldly that, quote, "systemic racism doesn't exist here." And he said the governor's probe will find that to be true ultimately. He did, however, pledge VMI's full cooperation in the review and assured state leaders that the school did nothing wrong. The letter says many of the incidents that Black students describe are old complaints that were dealt with internally, and those incidents are in no way indicative of the broader culture at the institute.

SHAPIRO: So what's been the response today to the superintendent's departure?

EVANS: Some Republicans in Virginia are saying that, you know, Governor Northam should afford VMI and Gen. Peay more, in their words, respect and grace. And they, of course, brought up Northam's own plea for forgiveness when his old medical school yearbook surfaced last year with some racist photos. But in the meantime, how the Virginia Military Institute plans to move forward and address its treatment of Black cadets is still unclear. But we do know the governor's report from that investigation is expected in a few months.

SHAPIRO: That's Whittney Evans of member station VPM in Richmond, Va., on the departure of the superintendent of VMI.

Thank you very much.

EVANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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