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Editorial: Northam makes the VMI mess even worse

Editorial: Northam makes the VMI mess even worse

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By The Roanoke Times

There is so much wrong with the situation at Virginia Military Institute that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s take things in chronological order.

1. Why the delayed outrage? Roanoke Times education reporter Claire Mitzel wrote in June about how some Black alumni were using social media to describe what they had faced at VMI, including: “being punished for not saluting the [Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson statue; white cadets wearing blackface; the pain of charging across the New Market battlefield; white students using the N-word; getting spit in the face.”

She followed up on the article in July with more details about alumni reaction to the issue.

VMI itself responded to the alumni in July, saying it would alter traditions but would not take down statues, including the one of Jackson.

Why didn’t the governor and the legislative leaders who now are upset to the point of forcing the resignation of Superintendent Binford Peay react then?

The fact they let all that pass then — only to respond so strongly now after The Washington Post runs its own story — suggests they really have no clue what’s happening west of the Blue Ridge.

2. VMI was too slow to respond to changing times. The issue here is bigger than the statue of Jackson — the statue’s not the one doing the despicable things Mitzel’s story described. But as a symbol, it’s a lightning rod. VMI insisted in July the statue would stay. The time to venerate Jackson ended in April 1865.

If VMI needs a new symbol, it has one readily available in the form of its most famous graduate — Gen. George Marshall, who went on to become secretary of state and win the Nobel Peace Prize for the famous post-World War II reconstruction plan that bears his name. He’s the one cadets ought to be saluting.

3. Why can’t Gov. Ralph Northam wait for the investigation that he himself ordered? Northam recently ordered an independent investigation into racism at VMI, then, just days later, sent word to Peay he had lost confidence and wanted him out. This seems rather like “Alice in Wonderland” where the Queen of Hearts declared “sentence first, verdict afterwards.”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert pointed out just a year ago Northam himself was involved in a political controversy with racial overtones. “He sought the grace of the public’s forgiveness,” Gilbert said. “If polling is to be believed, the public largely has extended that grace to him. Now the Virginia Military Institute stands accused of accommodating racist incidents. It’s a shame that Gov. Northam couldn’t extend the same amount of grace that he’s been afforded with his own past, at least until we know all the facts.”

Gilbert seems pretty on point here. Is there something here we don’t know? If so, Northam should tell us. Demanding a sacrificial head isn’t the only problem here, though.

4. In forcing out Peay, Northam has set a dangerous precedent that has implications far beyond VMI. College presidents — and that’s what Peay was, just with a different title — don’t report to the governor.

Virginia’s system of higher education governance is set up specifically to avoid this kind of political interference. Governors appoint governing boards — a board of visitors — and those boards hire and fire college presidents.

When there have been previous controversies involving college presidents — at Virginia Tech in 1986, at the University of Virginia in 2012 — governors rightly focused their ire on those boards. Gerald Baliles threatened to replace board members at Tech who didn’t get control of what he considered an out-of-control athletics department; Bob McDonnell threatened to fire the entire board at UVa if it didn’t resolve an embarrassing leadership crisis there.

Northam could have done that here. Indeed, over the weekend, former Gov. Douglas Wilder — the nation’s first Black elected governor — called on him to do just that. Instead, Northam bypassed the board entirely and had his chief of staff force out Peay. The question isn’t whether Peay should go or stay — the question is whether governors should be in the business of firing college presidents. The answer to that ought to be pretty clear: no.

Suppose some future college president says or does something a future governor doesn’t like. Are they in danger of being fired? Under the Northam precedent here, the answer is “yes.” Just a few years ago then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli tried to use his office to investigate a certain climate scientist at the University of Virginia whose work had especially offended certain climate change-deniers.

Suppose Cuccinelli had become governor, as he nearly did. If we were to apply the Northam precedent in reverse, a Gov. Cuccinelli might have been able to demand the resignation of the UVa president if he or she didn’t get rid of the offending professor.

Northam may think the allegations at VMI are of such a severe sort as to demand a presidential firing — and perhaps they are. But by doing it so directly, and not going through the governing board, means going forward every single campus controversy is grist for some headline-seeking candidate for governor. If elected, I will fire the president of … Is that how we want our system of higher education to work?

We’re living through an age in which we’re seeing many political norms and customs in Washington, D.C., being shattered and not always in a good way. Northam has just done the same thing here in Virginia. Not only has Northam set a bad precedent here, he’s missed an opportunity.

His spokeswoman sent out an email that said, in part, “Change is overdue at VMI, and the Board of Visitors bears a deep responsibility to embrace it.” Absolutely. However, there’s no guarantee that will happen.

Northam could have guaranteed it, though, if he’d replaced the board. That might have been politically uncomfortable, though, because all 17 members are Democratic appointees — appointed either by Northam or his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe. (Three were originally appointed by McDonnell, a Republican, but then reappointed by Democratic governors).

Maybe there’s a different way to view this set of facts — there often is. However, viewed this way, it sure looks as if Northam was so pressured by fellow Democratic legislators to “do something” about VMI he wound up setting a precedent that will come back to haunt us like the ghost of Banquo. Nobody in this looks good right now.

The Roanoke Times

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