Editorial: Superintendent’s swift ouster complicates VMI investigation

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

Gov. Ralph Northam said he lost confidence Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, the superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. On Monday, the general lost his post.

A situation that called for thorough investigation and careful deliberation instead received neither, which reflects poorly on the commonwealth.

Peay, a retired, respected and highly decorated four-star Army general, took the job at VMI 17 years ago. Now he’s out the door. Just like that.

Why? Equally important, how?

The presidents of Virginia state-operated colleges and universities do not work for the governor.

Neither do they work for the members of the General Assembly.

That’s not the arrangement in Virginia and never has been.

Here’s the reason why: You do not want the state system of higher education to be subjected to direct political control and therefore driven into the swales and currents of partisan or ideological preferences.

Instead, gubernatorially appointed governing boards are charged with the responsibility to select and oversee the presidents of these schools. It’s the single most important thing these boards do.

The presidents, in turn, operate the schools and answer to the boards.

Understand, these boards do not hover in outer space, detached from reality or influence. State funds, after all, support these schools. Accountability has to follow for the use of those funds, at a minimum.

The General Assembly, ultimately, controls the state treasury and can twist the public money spigot to “off” at will.

Nevertheless, Virginia proceeds in a way that has, for the most part, deterred and discouraged direct political involvement.

No elected official gets to rule the schools.

None. Not ever.

Yes, politics and preferences can intrude and historically have done so.

The vaunted Edgar Shannon, the president of the University of Virginia from 1959 to 1974, found himself exposed to stiff political criticism during the days of Vietnam War student protests.

Virginia Tech President William E. Lavery resigned in 1987 after a year’s worth of athletic program scandals and public remonstrances over misplaced priorities by then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.

William & Mary President Gene Nichol did not have his contract renewed in 2008 after controversy followed controversy, distracting from the school’s academic mission.

Recall also the howls of protest that followed Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli when he launched a political broadside at a U.Va. professor over the researcher’s work on climate change.

But in these instances and others, no Virginia governor ever sought to step in directly and remove a state university or college president. There’s a line out there — a prudent, practical, sensible line.

Or was.

Now Northam has abruptly danced across that line and has done so with little or no public explanation. Righteous indignation doesn’t count.

There have been published allegations of racial bias — harrowing incidents that are unacceptable in any institution — on the VMI campus and last week the governor ordered an investigation.

Serious allegations oblige a serious inquiry. Normally, you then await the results of the investigation before acting.

Normally.

It sets “a very dangerous precedent,” former speaker of the House Kirk Cox said on Monday, for the "governor and other political officials to take precipitous actions in response to news stories, especially when those actions preempt the considered judgment of the governing board entrusted to manage the institution under our laws.

“Nothing will undermine the quality or reputation of our nationally-esteemed higher education system faster than for our colleges and universities to become political footballs tossed about by politicians who apparently lack the judgment and discretion to respect proper process and wait for the facts,” Cox said.

Cox is right, of course. If an investigation concludes an institutional problem exists, by all means do what’s necessary to right the ship.

But Peay’s ouster is a solution without conclusive evidence of a problem. And it diminishes a process that could itself be instructive, cathartic and help forge a stronger VMI.

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