Investigative Report Documents Women’s Experiences at the Virginia Military Institute

After allegations of racism and sexism at the Virginia Military Institute were reported in the press, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia commissioned an independent investigation by the law firm Barnes and Thornburg. Their findings were just released in a new report.

The Virginia Military Institute was founded in 1839 in Lexington, Virginia. The first women cadets enrolled in 1997. Today, women make up only 14 percent of the student body.

The report begins by saying: “VMI has traditionally been run by white men, for white men. VMI’s overall unwillingness to change — or even question its practices and traditions in a meaningful way — has sustained systems that disadvantage minority and female cadets and faculty, and has left VMI trailing behind its peer institutions. If VMI refuses to think critically about its past and present, and to confront how racial and ethnic minorities and women experience VMI, it will remain a school for white men.”

The investigative team held a large number of interviews and focus groups on campus. They found that many respondents — including men —  stated that VMI’s gender-equity issues are worse than its racial-equity issues. Respondents reported incidents of gender inequity; a culture of not taking women seriously; double standards for women on matters of dress, social behavior, and sexual behavior; and disturbing sexist and misogynistic comments on social media.

Some men reported resentment toward women for perceived preferential treatment in physical training standards, discipline, and leadership opportunities. Female respondents had varying views about whether women are discriminated against at VMI. Many women expressed pride in VMI and the treatment of women by male cadets and a desire not to be given any preferential treatment simply because they are women.

The investigative team reported that sexual assault is prevalent at VMI yet it is inadequately addressed by the Institute. In the survey, 14 percent of female cadets reported being sexually assaulted at VMI, while 63 percent said that a fellow cadet had told them that he/she was a victim of sexual assault while a VMI cadet. Interviewees reported that, in some sexual assault cases, members of the VMI administration actively dissuaded victims from making reports. Cadets reported that VMI administrators have intimidated female cadets to reconsider assault reports, including by asking them to consider the impact on the male assailants’ careers. Interview respondents also explained that they perceived or experienced that VMI leadership puts a high priority on suppressing information and avoiding difficult situations, and less of a priority on addressing underlying problems.

Although VMI conducts extensive sexual assault training on campus, female cadets report that male cadets treat it as a joke and an opportunity for misogynistic humor, without consequence. Cadets perceive that the VMI-provided training is often not respected or taken seriously.

Many female cadets reported a consistent fear of assault or harassment by their fellow male cadets. These fears are exacerbated by some procedures at VMI, including the inability to lock their doors. Many female cadets also feel that assault complaints are not or will not be taken seriously by the VMI administration or that a cadet will suffer retaliatory consequences for reporting them. A Virginia statute makes it illegal for a university to punish a student for a drug or alcohol offense that comes to light during a report of sexual assault. The statute applies to every institution in the Commonwealth, with one notable exception: VMI.

The full 152-page report, Marching Toward Inclusive Excellence: An Equity Audit and Investigation of the Virginia Military Institute, may be downloaded by clicking here.


Filed Under: Research/StudySexual Assault/Harassment


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