The chairman of one of the General Assembly’s budget committee raised eyebrows — and in some quarters, full-scale alarm — when she suggested last fall that maybe Virginia doesn’t need a military college.
After multiple reports about racism at Virginia Military Institute, state Sen. Janet Howell, a Fairfax County Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, told Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist Jeff Schapiro that she wants to see some changes at the school — or else. “I’m not sure how important or relevant it is,” Howell said. “It seems to me its time has passed, especially if it doesn’t adjust to changing times.”
Since then, Gov. Ralph Northam has forced out VMI Superintendent Binford Peay and the VMI board has voted to remove the statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that cadets once were required to salute. We’ll see if that’s change enough.
To have an influential member of the General Assembly question the worth of VMI was shocking to some alumni — and a sign of just how much Virginia’s political culture has changed. Or maybe not.
In 1927, the Virginia General Assembly commissioned a massive critique of the state’s educational system. When that report came back in 1928, the biggest recommendation was that Virginia should rid itself of VMI. For this fascinating historical nugget, we are indebted to G.C. Morse, a former speechwriter for Gov. Gerald Baliles in the 1980s and now a columnist for the newspapers in Norfolk and Newport News.
The report of the Commission to Survey the Educational System of Virginia runs a massive 688 pages. Parts of it are quaint: It recommended that every girl be required to take a home economics class in elementary school. Parts of were pretty forward-thinking: It suggested that the University of Virginia “be thrown open to the admission of women in all of its undergraduate and graduate programs” — something that didn’t happen at the undergraduate level until 1970. Other parts could easily be repeated today: It bemoaned the disparity between schools in poor counties and affluent ones and called for more state funding to fix that.
However, the headline then — and now — was the conclusion that VMI was obsolete.
The report — notably authored by a staff of out-of-state academics — went on at length about how VMI was unnecessary. “The need for the particular type of education which is found at VMI has largely passed,” the report said. “The military training at Virginia Military Institute is too exacting and time-consuming for young men who are preparing for civilian life.” The report noted that there was a lot of sentiment attached to the institution: “The association of the Virginia Military Institute with the name of Stonewall Jackson, that great leader of the past, whose life and works would seem to set apart Virginia Military Institute forever as a shrine for the people of the South, as well as large numbers of the North.”
But the commission noted that times had changed. “The social situation in Virginia today does not foster in the cadets at VMI respect for military discipline such as was encouraged in an early days. During the last 25 years in Virginia, as in most of the states of the Union, the ideal of personal freedom and initiative has developed with extraordinary rapidity … This is the temper of American life today.” We should point out that the 1920s were called the Roaring ’20s — and were considered a time of shocking social change for some.
The commission ultimately concluded that Virginia could better spend its money elsewhere. The report suggested something that some VMI alumni mused about back in the ’90s when there was a legal challenge to its all-male status — that VMI go private. The report spelled out how that could work. It said Virginia should retain the real estate but lease it to a private group of VMI alumni “or other substantially interested persons” for $1 a year on condition that they take care of the upkeep and all other expenses of operating the school. If a private foundation couldn’t be found to take over VMI, then the school should be shut down and “converted into a vocational institute which will provide vocational education for all properly qualified male high-school graduates.” In modern parlance, the VMI buildings would have become an early version of a community college, just one that only offered credentials for certain technical programs.
Obviously nothing came of that but it’s a fascinating reminder that the past is often more complicated than we remember it.
The report had lots of other recommendations that weren’t adopted, either. It said Virginia Tech should drop all its liberal arts classes and focus on agriculture and mechanical arts. Only the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary should be allowed to offer liberal arts classes and “that no other state institution should be permitted to invade this field.” The only possible exception: If UVa didn’t admit women, then the women’s college at Harrisonburg — what we know today as James Madison University — should be turned into a liberal arts school for women. The report took a dim view of the women’s colleges in Radford and Fredericksburg — the future Radford University and University of Mary Washington. It said those schools should “devote their resources entirely to the training of teachers for rural and elementary city schools” but nothing more because they “do not have adequate facilities” to train future high school teachers.
In the spirit of the times, the report had little to say about educating Black students, other than that the state could do a better job. The report also didn’t like “junior colleges” — what today we might call community colleges. It advised Virginia not to open any of them “as long as the now established forms of education are failing to receive adequate financial support.”
What can we learn from this report 93 years later? Once we filter out all the social changes that have transpired, we can glean this: Some things don’t change. The report was emphatic that Virginia’s system of higher education should be better funded and better coordinated, two things we still hear today. The report also bemoaned that Virginia’s teachers, from the elementary level to the college level, weren’t well-paid, especially in comparison to other states. We still hear that, too. And then there’s the suggestion that maybe Virginia doesn’t need to run a military school. Nothing came of that in 1928. What about 2021 and beyond?