VMI’s first Black superintendent under attack by conservative White alumni

Photo for The Washington Post by Parker Michels-Boyce
Virginia Military Institute Superintendent Cedric T. Wins addresses the Class of 2021 during a change-of-command ceremony at the school in Lexington, Va., on May 14, 2021.

Ever since Virginia Military Institute began rolling out new diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives last year, a fierce and well-funded group of conservative alumni has been attacking the efforts to make VMI more welcoming to women and minorities.

Now the mostly White alumni group has turned its sights on a new target: the first Black superintendent at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college.

Some alumni have raised questions about what VMI is paying retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, while others have called for him to be fired – suggestions that have outraged his supporters.

Wins, 59, who graduated from VMI in 1985 after starring on the basketball team, was chosen to lead the college two years ago amid a state-ordered investigation into alleged racism on the Lexington, Va., campus. The investigation concluded that VMI has long tolerated a “racist and sexist culture” and must change. But at a school where cadets fought and died for the Confederacy, resistance to change was immediate and intense.

“This is about a bunch of rich, older White guys who are losing power,” said Chuck Rogerson, 61, a White retired Army colonel who roomed with Wins during their four years together at VMI. “They can’t handle the change because they’ve never had to deal with it before – a man of color leading the institute. Did they ever question prior superintendents’ salaries? Whatever they’re paying Wins, they ought to pay double, given all the crap he’s dealing with.”

This month, a political action committee called the Spirit of VMI, which represents many of the critics, released a statement questioning why VMI’s Board of Visitors awarded a $100,000 bonus in September to Wins, who makes an annual salary of $625,000. Last year, Wins received a $25,000 bonus.

The PAC asked “what performance metrics [the board] used to make such a generous award and sharp increase” and cited “major concern” among alumni about VMI’s direction, especially an alarming 25 percent drop in enrollment in this year’s freshman class.

Then, on Nov. 11, Douglas Conte, a White member of VMI’s Class of 1975, appeared on a conservative Richmond talk show to denounce the school’s “hyper liberal regime” and call on Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to scrutinize VMI’s decisions and “decide whether General Wins is the right person for that job.” Conte declined an interview with The Washington Post.

Through a VMI spokesman, Wins declined to address the attacks on his pay and tenure.

In an interview, Tom Watjen, the board’s president, defended Wins and his bonus, which was for his performance during the 2021-2022 academic year. Wins led the college through the pandemic, the response to the state-ordered investigation, and a sweeping evaluation of VMI’s memorials and tributes linked to the Confederacy, Watjen said. And he oversaw the launch of the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion program.

“Any time people are attacking the superintendent, I’m going to be unhappy. . . . He’s the one that we’re counting on for helping to bring us forward and protect the mission and purpose of the institute to bring us to the next level,” said Watjen, who is White. “Every time he gets attacked, I feel attacked.”

He said the board is working to boost unity among the divided alumni factions. “We’ve got to bring people back together again,” he said. “It’s not healthy to have this kind of discourse,” which could tarnish VMI’s reputation.

From the start, VMI’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts have been derided by some donors and alumni deeply wedded to the school’s traditions and 183-year history. Some have assailed VMI’s first chief diversity officer, Jamica Love, the college’s highest-ranking Black woman, and accused VMI of embracing critical race theory – a suggestion Wins blasted this year as “categorically false.”

The college, which received $29 million from the state for this academic year, did not admit its first Black students until 1968 or its first women until 1997. When Wins graduated from VMI in 1985, 13 members of his class of 300 were Black, the 1985 yearbook shows. Today, about 8 percent of VMI’s 1,500 cadets are Black, and women make up 13.5 percent of the student body.

For months, Spirit of VMI supporters have been filing Freedom of Information Act requests with VMI, seeking records related to the college’s diversity initiatives. One alumni critic sought the contract to pay Kimberly Dark, a lesbian author who delivered a talk on campus last month to a small group of students.

But it was the news release questioning Wins’s compensation package that escalated the conflict.

When Carmen D. Villani Jr., a White Spirit of VMI donor who graduated from the college in 1976, posted news about Wins’s bonus in a Facebook group for VMI parents, cadets and alumni, one of the group’s members alluded to the 25 percent enrollment drop and said that if a corporate CEO saw “a 25% drop in sales. .. he would be fired!” To which Villani replied, “Excellent point.”

Villani declined an interview request.

The growing animosity toward Wins was on display at an Oct. 24 Board of Visitors executive committee meeting.

One board member, Thomas “Teddy” Gottwald, CEO of a petroleum additives company who donated $25,000 to the Spirit of VMI, chided the superintendent about an email he’d sent to various alumni defending Dark’s lecture.

“It’s not a small group of alumni who feel like their voice isn’t being heard right now,” Gottwald told Wins, according to a recording of the meeting given to The Post by VMI. “It’s a big group. To make broad generalizations about alumni, about anyone being critical of what is going on, is just one further implication that alumni need to just shut up and get in line, that dissenting opinions, different opinions aren’t encouraged or welcomed here.”

Gottwald – who resigned from the board in 2020 before a vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson from campus, but was reappointed by Youngkin this year – suggested that Wins or anyone else speaking publicly to critical alumni begin their messages by thanking them. “That’ll go a long way – that and maybe admitting that we haven’t gotten it right all the time,” said Gottwald, who is White and donated $77,500 to Youngkin’s campaign. Then he said there should be “some recognition that people who speak out are not intent on destroying the school, that they care. “

One of the board’s four Black members, Lester Johnson, pushed back, calling the vitriol against Wins and his supporters disturbing.

“We’ve been called evil,” Johnson said. “Respect goes both ways. . . . It would be good that if some of the stuff that’s being said about board members, some of the stuff that’s being said about General Wins cease and desist. . . . Some of these alumni are saying that General Wins is trying to destroy the school. . . . I don’t see how we’ve gotten there, where General Wins, a storied alumni, would take a job as the superintendent in an effort to destroy the school from the inside out.”

Gottwald did not return messages seeking comment.

Washington Post photo by John McDonnell
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) watches the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute after being sworn in on the front steps of the Virginia Capitol on Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond.

The angry alumni and their supporters have found refuge on WRVA radio, where morning show host John Reid amplifies their grievances.

Reid has condemned diversity, equity and inclusion training as “a racist movement” meant to “stomp on White people,” likened any “DEI person” to a Ku Klux Klan member and urged Youngkin to get rid of everyone in state government “appointed,” “given a job” or “anointed” by his Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam, “including the head of VMI.” (Wins was hired by the board, not Northam.)

During an Oct. 19 segment in which PAC Chairman Matt Daniel called Dark’s talk VMI “garbage,” Reid slammed her and Wins even harder: “You gotta be a moron to run the Virginia Military Institute and bring in this dingbat woman talking about lesbianism and ‘Daddies,’ and her essay is ‘Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old,’ and think that responsible citizens are going to nod their head and say, ‘That’s okay.’ “

In an interview, Dark called those comments “unkind and ineffective.” “When someone says something like that,” she said, “you immediately ask the question, ‘Does being a woman make me stupid? Does having a different ideology make me stupid?’ “

Dark’s October talk was optional and drew only about 70 cadets from the corps, according to Bill Wyatt, VMI’s spokesman.

Dark also did not discuss her novel, “The Daddies,” which her website describes as a “dark love letter to masculinity told as a lesbian leather-Daddy love story.”

Instead, a video of her speech shows, Dark talked about assumptions people make about others based on their body appearance, described VMI’s issues with inclusivity as similar to those on other college campuses, and encouraged students to talk with others about diversity and inclusion to “inspire change rather than forcing change.”

Wins defended her appearance.

“While I understand and appreciate those who are genuinely concerned about the curriculum, method of education, and various topics of learning that VMI cadets are exposed to both in and out of the classroom, time and time again, there has been a group of unhappy alumni who want to stoke the worst fears and sow seeds of discord about the training and education of students here,” Wins wrote in email to some alumni that made its way onto a Facebook group for VMI parents, students and graduates. “These unhappy alumni conduct themselves as if cadets can’t or won’t think for themselves, won’t challenge assumptions or ideas to gain a better understanding of new ideas or individuals with whom they disagree. They assume that many on our faculty and staff are a part of the conspiracy to alter VMI to an agenda counter to their own.”

But the email didn’t settle the matter.

On Nov. 3, the Spirit of VMI posted a cartoon on Facebook, a mock flier that read, “The Virginia Military Institute Dept. Diversity Equity Inclusion Introduces Its 2022-3 Speaker Series: ‘Dark’ Days in Lexington.” Beneath the language was a depiction of a voluptuous woman in VMI shorts clasping a stripper pole, identified as the “VMI pole-dancing club captain,” and another of a topless man clad in a thong and a collar whose caption reads: “Sista Capuccino Boneya.”

When Wins saw the cartoon, he posted it on his Facebook account and said Daniel, who graduated with him in 1985 and runs the Spirit of VMI, was “looking desperate and racist,” according to a screenshot obtained by The Post. Wins later deleted the cartoon and comment.

In a statement, Wins said he thought the cartoon was, “in my view, both homophobic and racist in its references to an invited speaker and the diversity office leadership at VMI.” He added: “Rather than engage with what could be considered a personal attack by referring to the cartoonist by name, I should have chosen to ignore it. I removed the post with my comments and sent a note of apology directly to my classmate, Matt Daniel.”

The Post sent Daniel, who is White, a series of questions, including whether he created the cartoon. He did not return messages seeking comment.

David Twillie, one of Wins’s Black classmates who now serves as the chief of soldier readiness for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., said the PAC’s statement about Wins’s compensation disappointed him.

“I personally like Matt Daniel. But I just don’t see how his PAC helps VMI, especially by attempting to tear down someone from our class that we should be incredibly proud of. In every way, this is our guy,” Twillie said. “A personal attack on Cedric? How does that help VMI?”

Sean Lanier, a Black VMI graduate who served on the Board of Visitors until this summer, said the PAC’s attempts to blame Wins for the enrollment drop are unfair. He said the college has not recruited hard enough in diverse areas of the country and that White alumni are also not recruiting vigorously enough in their own communities. It doesn’t help, Lanier said, that these same White alumni are lobbing public attacks that circulate widely into social media.

“They’re like Pigpen [from ‘Peanuts’] walking around in dust clouds, wondering why no one wants to play with them,” Lanier said. “But the reason the alumni critics want Wins out now is that if he gets the enrollment back up, it would be harder to challenge him.”

VMI’s goal is to boost next year’s freshman class to 450, from 375 this year, and raise it to 550 by August 2027.

Many of the alumni attacking Wins say he never should have gotten the job in the first place. They supported his predecessor, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, who was pressured to resign by Northam in 2020 after 17 years of leading the school.

On Nov. 11, Peay returned to campus for VMI’s 183rd birthday. He was there to accept the college’s highest award, the New Market Medal, named for a Civil War battle in which 257 VMI cadets fought in defense of slavery and 10 died.

Wins was on the stage, too, welcoming Peay and praising his leadership.

“His guidance has placed us in an excellent position in the 21st century as we approach the institute’s 200th anniversary,” Wins said. “He demonstrated how we must remain aware of our past and hold firm to the ideals that VMI was built upon.”

But after the ceremony, when the VMI Alumni Association posted photos from the event on LinkedIn – including one of Wins shaking Peay’s hand onstage – one of the PAC’s supporters used the scene of unity to bash VMI’s leadership.

“General Peay certainly deserved the recognition, but not so those who presented the New Market Medal to him,” wrote Gene Rice, a White member of the Class of 1974. “They, who colluded with former Governor Northam in his ouster, and those whom Northam then placed in positions of leadership at VMI are worthy neither of their positions nor of the honor of present[ing] General Peay with the medal.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Heather Rousseau
The entrance to Virginia Military Institute’s P. Wesley Foster Jr. Stadium in Lexington, Va., on November 25, 2020.