‘DEI is dead’: At VMI, Youngkin’s diversity chief slams diversity, equity, inclusion
The Washington Post April 28, 2023
Virginia’s chief diversity officer was blunt. He took the stage Friday at Virginia Military Institute — a college embroiled in a tense debate over racism, sexism and diversity reforms — and slammed the whole concept of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Let’s take a moment right now to kill that cow. DEI is dead,” said Martin D. Brown, who was appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in November. “We’re not going to bring that cow up anymore. It’s dead. It was mandated by the General Assembly, but this governor has a different philosophy of civil discourse, civility, treating — living the golden rule, right?”
Brown, a Black Republican who is a former Heritage Foundation fellow and worked for two prior GOP governors, was the featured speaker at a mandatory annual “inclusive excellence” training for VMI’s faculty and staff members. VMI recorded the speech and made it available after The Post asked to see it.
The freewheeling talk — which Brown kicked off with a prayer to Jesus and laced with mentions of “our Creator” and “God” — angered some of the people who attended.
“Other colleges have had DEI embedded at their schools for a long time, but at VMI, it’s new and not fully supported by alumni and staff,” said one professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It’s a place where you can stomp it out. Multiple people I spoke with afterwards were outraged. They were concerned about our students, our minority groups. How is this going to impact them? They’re already struggling even with the current diversity push.”
Brown’s speech came at an especially sensitive time for VMI, the nation’s oldest state-supported military college. Its 1,500 students remain mostly White and male.
The Lexington school has been under pressure to change since late 2020, when then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an independent investigation into VMI, saying the school suffered from a “clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism.” Afterward, the 183-year-old college, whose cadets fought and died for the Confederacy, appointed its first Black superintendent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins and created a diversity, equity and inclusion office, led by two Black women.
Recently, VMI changed the title of its diversity office to Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion to reflect the title of Brown’s office in Richmond. The scrapping of “equity,” though, also came after blowback by some of the college’s mostly White, older alumni, who graduated in the 1970s and 1980s. They have spent months attacking DEI as anti-White.
On Friday, before several hundred VMI professors and other staff members, Brown, who is 60 and makes $160,000 a year, echoed the criticisms of its conservative graduates.
“VMI’s in a unique space . . . You’ve been at the tip of the spear in serving our country in sending warriors to battle, but in a way, you’re at the tip of the spear in this cultural war as well,” said Brown, who also argued: “Generally, when you are focusing on equity, you’re not pursuing merit or excellence or achievement. Not all the time, but you’re looking at equal outcomes.”
Before its removal from the college’s website, VMI’s explanation of its DEI program stated that equity was different from equality because, “whereas equality means providing the same to all, equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to address historical and existing discrimination.”
“Inequities happen when unfair or biased practices, policies, or situations contribute to a lack of equality. Equity must permeate all practices, policies, and procedures for every constituent.”
(Now, VMI’s diversity office website says that changes to its content are forthcoming.)
Brown said that pursuing diversity for its own sake is flawed.
“What we’ve done is we’ve made diversity the mission. Wrong mission . . . The challenge is keeping your eyes on the mission rather than the attendant challenges that we experience trying to complete the mission,” Brown said. “And when we focus on those challenges, what happens is the mission is undermined . . . One of the things we want to focus on is whatever the goal of the organization is, that goal is paramount, and diversity and inclusion supports whatever the goal is.”
Brown, who spoke at VMI at the superintendent’s invitation, declined an interview request. The Post sent him questions about his talk, but he declined to answer them. Instead, he supplied a statement:
“It’s proven that institutions achieve more with a more diverse and inclusive workforce,” a portion of the statement read. “However, equity has become a tradeoff for excellence. Our aim is to expand opportunities but not guarantee equal results.”
Before joining the Youngkin administration, Brown worked for two other GOP governors, Bob McDonnell and Jim Gilmore. He served as the state’s commissioner of the social services department, overseeing more than 1,700 employees in 120 locations, his government biography says.
Most recently, he worked as president of a public relations firm and as manager of a Chick-fil-A franchise in Richmond, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In interviews with The Post, a half-dozen faculty and staff members said it felt like Brown was repeating right-wing political talking points, denigrating “equity” without any evidence, and dismissing the very premise of his job — diversity. They also were disturbed that he began a training session at a public college with a Christian prayer, invoking the name of Jesus; and his repeated praising of his boss, Youngkin, who is scheduled to deliver on May 16 the school’s commencement address.
“People felt like it was propaganda,” a faculty member said. Brown’s declaration that “DEI is dead” felt like he was “baiting” the room. But many professors, the faculty member added, are conflicted about publicly condemning Brown’s talk for fear that the Youngkin administration might “target” them or “politicize” their work or motives.
“There is this worry we have a responsibility to do something about the message that was delivered and the harm that was done, but we have to balance that against whether that will backfire. Was he there to deliberately to draw us out as ‘liberal faculty’?” the professor said. “But it’s not about ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ Faculty have a job. It’s our vocation to teach our students to have difficult conversations with different people. We’re a place of higher education and that’s what we have to be doing. We were there to be trained to do our jobs better - but instead we were told, ‘DEI is dead.’”
Several staff and faculty members said Brown didn’t fully explain his office’s vision and why “opportunity” is superior to “equity.”
“What is the purpose of DOI? How is it positive? I just didn’t get any clarity. What are the pieces of that? How can we see ourselves in that effort? It just lacked substance,” one staff member told The Post. “I don’t think he understands how many people in that room were disappointed. This was a mandatory meeting, and it was a waste. And to say that DEI is dead? He’s killed two parts of his office - diversity and inclusion. He made a case as to why he shouldn’t have a job.”
At various points during his talk, Brown suggested that race relations in the country have dramatically improved over the last several decades. “Because they’re better, we can’t ascribe perpetual victimization or even motives because they’re different,” he said. “Acknowledging those truths frees us up to deal with the issues, the real issues, of today.”
At the end of Brown’s speech, one person asked him how he could reconcile inclusiveness and reducing divisiveness with his opening Christian prayer.
“The one thing I probably did say that I probably shouldn’t have was ‘Jesus,’ “ he said. “And I should have focused on ‘our Creator’ because I am holding the position of a government official in this context and so . . . I understand that and I respect that. But I am not going to apologize for who I am.”
The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.