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VMI's commandant will retire at the end of the school year

By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: January 23, 2021

The commandant of the Virginia Military Institute, William "Bill" Wanovich, who came under scrutiny for posing in a photo mocking Hispanics at a campus Halloween party three years ago, is retiring at the end of the academic year, the college announced Friday.

Wanovich's pending departure marks the latest major disruption at VMI since The Washington Post published a series of stories exposing racism at the nation's oldest state-supported military college.

The revelations prompted Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a VMI graduate, to order an independent investigation into what he called the school's "clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism." The investigation will be completed later this year.

In October, the college's longtime superintendent, retired Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, resigned. He was replaced by retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, the college's first Black leader in its 181-year history. Wins is serving as interim superintendent until the college selects a permanent successor to Peay later this year.

Wanovich, who graduated from VMI in 1987, became commandant in 2014 after serving 27 years in the Army, according to an email sent to the VMI community. The retired colonel, who did not return messages seeking comment, oversees military training for 1,700 cadets at the Lexington, Va., school, where about 6 percent of the student body is Black.

In 2017, Wanovich posed in a picture taken at the cadets' annual Halloween costume party alongside students dressed up in cardboard boxes as "Trump's Wall." The words "Keep Out" and "No Cholos," a slur against Mexicans, were scrawled on the students' costume.

In a statement shortly after the image surfaced online, the school said the costume "was in poor taste and demonstrated a lack of appreciation that it was offensive. . . . The VMI leadership does not tolerate this type of behavior and is addressing the matter with the Corps of Cadets."

In December, The Post published a story about Rafael Jenkins, a student who is Black and Hispanic and was threatened with a lynching by a White student in August 2018. When his father told Wanovich that he wanted the White student expelled, he said Wanovich responded by saying that many of VMI's cadets had grown up in racist homes and that he hoped the college could change them.

Wanovich, 55, disputed that characterization of their conversation.

"I believe that I told [the father] that like all schools, VMI receives young men and women here with different maturity levels and a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, both good and bad, as they are growing up," Wanovich said in email to The Post. "I told him that young men and women are sometimes prone to make mistakes. I said that we work very hard to provide all cadets a good experience, leadership opportunities, responsibility and character development, all in hopes that each of these cadets will continue to grow throughout their time here and leave as better citizens and people."

Bill Wyatt, VMI's spokesman, said Wanovich's decision to retire had nothing to do with the controversy over the Trump border wall picture or the state investigation into racism. He said Wanovich had been planning the move since September and wanted to spend more time with his family.

According to Washington Business Journal's 2020 database of Virginia's top publicly paid earners, Wanovich made just over $143,000 a year.

"Col. Wanovich has instilled a great deal of professionalism and integrity to the Corps of Cadets during his time as commandant," Wins said. "We appreciate his dedication to the Institute and service to the nation and commonwealth."

VMI, which was founded in 1839 and whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War, has long struggled with accusations of racism. It was the last public college in Virginia to integrate in 1968.

In December, after years of resistance, VMI finally removed a century-plus old statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson that sat in the center of campus, right in front of the student barracks. Until a few years ago, students had to salute the statue of Jackson, who taught physics at the college and enslaved six people. The decision to cart the statue off was so contentious that two VMI Board of Visitors members resigned right before the board took its vote.