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A formation at Virginia Military Institute in February 2022. The nation’s oldest military college typically enrolls about 500 new cadets at the start of its renowned “Hell Week” — a period of grueling training and verbal abuse — each August. The freshmen who began Hell Week last month: 375.

A formation at Virginia Military Institute in February 2022. The nation’s oldest military college typically enrolls about 500 new cadets at the start of its renowned “Hell Week” — a period of grueling training and verbal abuse — each August. The freshmen who began Hell Week last month: 375. (Virginia Military Institute/Facebook)

Freshman enrollment at Virginia Military Institute has plummeted by 25 percent this year, prompting alarm and debate among officials and alumni about how to fix the problem.

The nation's oldest military college typically enrolls about 500 new cadets at the start of its renowned "Hell Week" — a period of grueling training and verbal abuse — each August. In 2021, the number of freshman was 496; the year before, it was 522, the highest ever, according to the college's data.

The freshmen who began Hell Week last month: 375.

At a Board of Visitors meeting Tuesday, VMI's superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, said the school had hoped to attract 520 freshmen. He blamed a combination of national trends, including falling birthrates and a drop in the number of postsecondary students nationwide, and factors unique to VMI.

For the past two years, the college has faced intense scrutiny over racism and sexism on its Lexington campus, fueling a public battle among its alumni over the school's identity and way forward.

During a presentation for the board, Wins showed a slide titled, "Possible Drivers for a 25% drop in VMI Admissions for the Class of 2026." The first reason listed: "VMI brand reputation tarnished in various media outlets." The third bullet point: "Ideological differences among a divided alumni base."

At a small school that costs about $30,600 for in-state students and $60,400 for out-of-state students, the consequences have been dramatic. Overall, VMI counts 1,512 students, down from 1,652 the year before and about 1,700 in 2019.

Wins said the college's yield — the percentage of students who enroll after being accepted — has also dropped. According to the college's statistics, the yield fell from about 53 percent in 2018 to 43 percent in 2022.

A VMI spokesman said a breakdown of the freshman class by race and gender is not available yet. The college, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy, did not admit its first Black students until 1968 and its first women until 1997. Last year, just 6 percent of its 1,650 cadets were Black. Women made up 14 percent of the student body.

The state's contribution to VMI's $111 million budget will be $29 million this academic year.

The plunge in enrollment has sparked consternation — and more division — among parents, alumni and faculty. On one Facebook group, they began arguing shortly after Hell Week began about why the number of "rats," as freshmen are known, was so low this year. Some blamed the push to make VMI more welcoming to women and cadets of color.

"Nobody wants a woke VMI," one graduate declared.

On Wednesday, during the board's second day of meetings, Catharine Ingersoll, an associate professor in the English, rhetoric, and humanistic studies department, used the public comment period to read aloud parts of an Instagram direct message she recently received from a student.

"Some of these grads will never learn," the student wrote to Ingersoll. "These guys think they're saving the school, but they're more destructive than anything. Fortunately, most current cadets see through it."

Ever since former Virginia governor Ralph Northam (D) ordered an independent investigation into allegations of systemic racism at the college, a contingent of mostly older, White and conservative alumni has been pushing back.

When the probe, conducted by the law firm Barnes & Thornburg, concluded in June 2021 that VMI suffered from a "racist and sexist culture," a conservative political action committee called the Spirit of VMI mocked the findings online and denounced the school's leadership for "appeasement."

During Wednesday's Board of Visitors meeting, Carter Melton, a former board member who graduated the year before VMI admitted Black students, denounced the investigation as a "jihad" and called the final report "egregiously incompetent" and conducted by a "mid-tier law firm."

Other alumni have taken to conservative news sites or Facebook groups for the VMI community, railing against the college's diversity, equity and inclusion training efforts.

In April, they circulated a petition seeking to halt the school's potential contract with a Northern Virginia firm that conducts diversity training for corporations and government agencies. Around the same time, a company run by another graduate — who also helped resurrect the college's student newspaper — sued VMI and the diversity training firm in an effort to stop the contract.

"Ideological differences among a divided alumni base certainly has affected us because if you contrast that with . . . the peaks and valleys of the negative media press, what we are seeing from our alumni base is kind of a sustained negative reaction that has happened," Wins told the VMI board during his presentation on Tuesday. "And, we have to decide amongst ourselves which is harmful. Both are harmful, but which is of more detriment to the institute and how do we turn that around?"

Wins, the first Black superintendent in VMI's 182-year history, also said the college has fallen victim to "misinformation" from alumni who have accused it of embracing "critical race theory." The college has consistently dismissed that allegation.

"Misinformation regarding our initiative for diversity, equity and inclusion and the thought, the notion, the misinformation about the institute and what it's doing or what it's not doing with critical race theory is certainly having an impact, we believe," Wins told board members.

Though the federal service academies also reported a steep drop in applications, they have kept their enrollment numbers stable. At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the number of cadets who showed up on Reception Day was 1,210, slightly lower than the previous year, according to a spokesman. At the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the number of students who began this year was 1,184, one more than the prior year, a spokeswoman said.

But perhaps the biggest blow to VMI was that its chief rival, The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., saw its applications skyrocket from nearly 2,600 in 2021 to 3,500 this year. Its freshman enrollment rose from 693 to 790, its spokesman said.

William "Sonny" Leggett, a retired Army colonel and The Citadel's vice president of communications and marketing, said the school forecast that applications to colleges nationwide could fall this year and that it acted early to promote The Citadel to students with an interest in attending military schools.

In late 2021, the college announced a scholarship that would cover one year of tuition and room and board for freshmen with a three-year ROTC scholarship, giving them a full four years of tuition-free education. The college, he said, leaned heavily on its alumni and its fundraising arm, the Citadel Foundation, to help finance those scholarships, which cost about $4 million in lost revenue over four years.

But Leggett also said The Citadel's enrollment may have benefited from some of the controversy that VMI has faced the past two years.

"There's an inevitable impact and reputational damage" that VMI suffered, he said. "Similar things have happened to other institutions, and how they handle those problems is key to their future success."

During Tuesday's meeting, when The Citadel's scholarship was brought up, Thomas Watjen, VMI's board president, said: "Isn't that the fastest way to try to get going here? Because there's a sense of urgency."

Wins agreed. VMI is exploring whether to offer a similar scholarship in the next year, Wins told the board, saying it could be "the thing we need to slide across the table."

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