Opinion: Proposed VMI investigation both unserious and dangerous

Gordon C. Morse, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read

Virginia has merrily, improbably and strangely leapt over a previously unleapable line regarding the governance of its state-supported colleges and universities.

This bad bus — the investigation of Virginia Military Institute — needs to be pulled over.

Better, park it and throw away the key.

A caveat: That may not happen. I get that. From long ago, I’ve told myself, when writing editorials or columns, not to advocate public actions that are doubtful to occur.

In other words, if you cannot get there from here, don’t urge people to do it anyway.

But there are these things in the category of “normative” — matters which must be examined on the basis of what “ought” to be. Or not.

This is a “not.” Over close to 40 years of scribbling commentary, I have seldom encountered a more tradition-destroying, precedent-wrecking and problematic proposition than to have Virginia Military Institute “investigated” by contractors.

That part alone boggles the mind. When has Virginia ever targeted a prominent state-affiliated institution for “investigation” by a yet-to-be-identified contractual third-party entity?

What are we doing here, subcontracting our state governance?

The State Counsel for Higher Education was charged with getting the old ball rolling by issuing a “Request for Proposals.” The ball better run fast. “The Special Investigation Team will be strongly encouraged to provide preliminary findings and recommendations to SCHEV no later than Dec. 31, 2020,” the RFP says.

That’s the end of next month. No holiday cheer for the “team,” it seems certain.

An “interim report” will be due before Feb. 10 with a final report “with all findings and recommendations” no later than June 1.

And what, pray tell, is the goal and the criteria upon which the investigation will proceed?

The RFP — it closed on Friday — goes big: “What are the current cadets’ perceptions of VMI across all dimensions of diversity? … What are the perceptions of VMI by alumni from underrepresented groups when they were cadets? … What are the perceptions of VMI by alumni from underrepresented groups now?”

The definition of “underrepresented?” The RFP does not say. But you sort of wonder if precision is really the deal here.

The idea, perhaps, is more cosmic. Gaze into the void. “It is expected that the Special Investigation Team will use diverse methodologies to investigate the complex culture, policies, and traditions at VMI,” the RFP says.

Graduation rates. Enforcement of discipline. Racial animus. Compensation. Promotion. Comparative data. Whatever.

And, heavens, don’t stop there. “Given any findings of civil rights violations, racial intolerance, and/or inequity across any institutional dimensions,” should the investigation find such, “what measures, reforms, or interventions are recommended to address and correct any identified equity implications?”

“What resources or partnerships are available on the local, state, or national level to sustain any recommended interventions? What would be the fiscal impacts for implementing these resources or partnerships?”

In short, have a blast. Cut loose. Rummage about. Run down every corridor. See where it takes you.

Just don’t forget, we expect to hear from “the team” before New Year’s Eve.

To assist prospective contractors, a “Q&A” came with the RFP: “QUESTION: Has the State ever conducted or had a third party conduct a State agency internal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) investigation? ANSWER: This is unknown.”

No kidding. It says exactly that, caps included.

Unknown, indeed. And abundantly unsensible.

“Get what the governor and attorney general have done,” state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, told news radio station WLNI, “they came out and declared that they knew the results, and they forced out [Gen. Binford Peay III, the superintendent] there, they passed judgment and then they want to spend a million dollars to see if it’s true.”

Let’s cut right to the heart of what’s happening here and present my own little — intentionally provocative — Q&A.

QUESTION: What is the difference this thing and the post-WWII Martin Dies, J. Parnell Thomas, Joseph McCarthy investigations of Un-American activity?

ANSWER: Not enough.

This investigation centers on serious, intolerable treatment of people. But it approaches the questions — which have to be answered at VMI or any other school — by combining a ludicrous timeline with a striving, politically-fueled agenda.

In so doing, the entire approach manages to be both unserious and dangerous.

Virginia governs its colleges and universities, not from on-high, but through a system of independent, gubernatorially appointed boards. Perfect? Hardly.

But as a substitute we’re getting circumvention and stage-setting. The RFP strings the lights and arranges the sound system for political theater. They will very quickly cue the curtain’s rise.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co. and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.

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