Dear Fellow VMI Alumni:
I write this with reluctance, as I have great respect for those in leadership positions, particularly those who have been selected for General or Flag rank. I have always questioned the wisdom of those sitting on the sidelines who are critical of those who are running an organization.
In recent weeks it has come to my attention that “all is not well in River City.” That there is turmoil at our beloved Institute and that the rot begins at the very top of the organization. Yes, I have come to the sad conclusion that General J. H. Binford Peay is sacrificing the academic reputation of VMI and its future as the premier educational institution teaching leadership in the United States on the altar of his vision that is rooted in an educational model that existed fifty years ago and is no longer relevant in the second decade of the 21st Century.
It is time for a new Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. There is no question that General Peay is a dedicated servant leader, a respected military man, but whose leadership and direction for VMI is no longer serving the common weal of the Institute.
Let me list my concerns. For the time being I shall only expand on my concerns regarding the English Department as I want to get more information on some of the other issues.
- The mass exodus of tenured and tenure track professors from the English Department of the Virginia Military Institute.
- The mishandling of a sexual assault case, which was highlighted in the June issue of the Rockbridge Advocate.
The insistence that VMI remain a Division 1 athletic school despite the continued struggles of our athletic teams in particular our football team. A return to the Southern Conference, while admirable, will hardly suffice to fix the problem of competing at the Division 1 level.Based on comments in the commentary section and more importantly in a telephone call from MG (ret) Tom Tait ’55 I should not have included this in my concerns. I stand by my statement that returning to the Southern Conference is better than the Big South.
- The decision of the Dean of the Faculty to leave his position at the end of the next academic year.
- The decision of the Superintendent to deny Cadets charged with an honor violation the right to be represented by legal counsel.
- The alienation of the citizens of Lexington over the plans to tear down the Knights of Pythias Hall, a center of the Lexington African-American community until recent years. It has been pointed out that I failed to add that VMI decided not to tear down but rather move the Knights of Pythias hall. Some have missed the point that what bothered me was that VMI even considered for a moment tearing down the Knights of Pythias Hall. This to be me was arrogance on the part of VMI in that they were “tone deaf” to both historical and cultural considerations.
This is not easy for me to write. I do not question the Capital improvements that have been undertaken while General Peay has been the Superintendent. They have been badly needed and have improved VMI, made it a more attractive institution to future Cadets. For this I will give him an A+. But an educational institution is more than buildings and infrastructure. Its sinews and heart and soul are its students, its academic departments, and its faculty; without them it is nothing.
The recent decision of seven members of the English Department to resign is disturbing. Each member who resigned was either tenured or in a tenure track position. In today’s academic marketplace one does not resign such positions. They are rare, as most positions today in academia are adjunct positions. This is troubling as I have it on good authority that a majority of those who resigned have been hired by other institution as tenure track instructors. Hardly duds!
There is no question that the decision to move from an emphasis on Literature to Rhetoric and writing played a part. This battle is being played out throughout academia. In part members of the English Literature profession have only themselves to blame, as they have become the embroiled in academic warfare over various post-modern interpretations of literature that leave the average student bored. Consequently enrollment nationwide has declined. VMI is no different.
In talking with an informed source and according to the stories in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Roanoke Times, Rockbridge Advocate and the Chronicle of Higher Education this involves the belief by the faculty who departed, that they were given little voice in the changes to the English Department curriculum, the changes were driven from top down without regard of the concerns of the professors in the English Department.
Moreover they were concerned that they were not longer being rated on their job performance by the Head of the English Department but rather by a member of the Academic Staff. According to one source they went from being heroes one year to zeroes the next.
According to both the Roanoke Times and the Richmond Times Dispatch, the American Association of University Professors sent a letter to General Peay about the situation in the English Department. The Roanoke Times states:
According to The Chronicle, the American Association of University Professors sent a letter last month to VMI Superintendent Binford Peay objecting to lack of faculty input in the curriculum change.
The Chronicle said the resignations, six of which occurred this spring and summer, resulted from discord with the administration that began three years ago when faculty members suddenly began receiving negative performance reviews. The professors filed a complaint in October 2011 that said they were rebuffed when they sought guidance on how to improve.
Peay appointed a five-person committee to investigate the complaint, which rejected all of the professors’ allegations last summer and found that the faculty members were to blame for any hostile environment that had been created, The Chronicle reported.
MacInnis confirmed that account, but VMI did not immediately respond to a request for Peay’s report on the findings.
This story is going viral amongst the newspapers in Virginia. The News-Gazette the weekly newspaper of Rockbridge County and not one to rock the boat of any Rockbridge County institution, weekly edition leads with the story of the English Department. The concluding paragraph like that of the Roanoke Times is damning:
He was on to say that, “Morale at VMI is very low, and it is not just in the English department.”
A faculty member from a department other than the English department also spoke anonymously to The News-Gazette concerning faculty evaluations and the environment at VMI.
Regarding the evaluations, “They do go through the process, but they pretty much just have it their way,” he said.
“VMI is a curious mix,” he continued, “a cross between a liberal arts college and a military institution and the pendulum is swinging towards the military side.”
A wise friend, who is a retired faculty member, remarked it is better to leave when those will remember you fondly rather than as the guy peeing down their leg. Or as the great Mel Carico, the political reporter, once said about Senator A. Willis Robertson defeat in the 1966 Democratic primary, “He should have left with his tailpipes smokin.”
As I said this is hard for me to write, as I have a great deal of respect for General Peay and in particular his leadership of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” during Desert Storm. The air-assault conducted by the 101st was a move of tactical brilliance that helped seal the fate of the Iraqi Army.
In today’s environment where colleges are overpriced, where the internet is delivering education without someone having to sit in a classroom, VMI is in many ways an anachronism, an anachronism worth preserving. But it is an institution that must be nurtured and cared for through conservative and prudent leadership that seeks to retain the best of the past while changing with the times.
As one VMI graduate put it, General Peay means well but his vision is creating a very different school than we knew as Cadets. It would appear that many aspects of VMI to include retaining world class faculty are being sacrificed on the altar of one man’s vision endangering not only his reputation but that of our beloved Institute.
I ask, I plead with General Peay to do the right thing and retire; if not I ask the Board of Visitors to do the right thing—replace General Peay as the Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute.
I remain, with kindest regards, in the Spirit of VMI,
Henry J. Foresman, Jr.
You may contact the author of this piece directly by emai at:
firstname.lastname@example.org; or call his cell phone 540.529.2592. The author request that all comments, emails, and calls be civil.