Why Can’t We Talk About this Stuff?  What are We Afraid Of?

Last week, special investigators, appointed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, released their final report on an “equity audit and investigation of Virginia Military Institute.”  VMI is a public state-supported liberal arts college in western Virginia, a military academy that prepares students for both military and civilian life.

The Institute, founded in 1839, has a proud history.  Visitors are quickly indoctrinated into the story of how VMI cadets were the only military school cadets to fight in a war, called to action in the battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, contributing to the Confederate victory in that battle.

New cadets reenact the battle during their Rat Year and, until December 2020, all rats (freshmen) saluted the statue of Stonewall Jackson which stood outside the barracks.

I am a VMI alumnus parent.  I was, and am, thankful that my son received an amazing education, an opportunity to commission in the U. S. Marine Corps, and a huge alumni association that would help him throughout his life.

I didn’t think too much about the Confederate aspect of the Institute; actually, I’m not sure I really understood it in 2009.

VMI originated in 1839 as a school of higher education for white men.  In 1968, African American males were admitted.  Women were admitted in 1996, over significant resistance.  Diversity was legislated, and everyone was expected to get on board.

How’d that work for them?

In October 2020, the long-time Superintendent of VMI was asked to resign by the Governor of the Commonwealth, saying he had lost confidence in his leadership.

The events of 2020 and the turmoil of the nation finally roused the anger in minority cadets, and the stories of racism grew loud.  The Governor of the Commonwealth, a VMI alumna himself, initiated an investigation and found sufficient concern to remove the Superintendent.

He then engaged a law firm to complete an in-depth investigation.  The law firm released their report on June 1, 2021.  Their conclusions, as described in the executive summary stated that:

  1. Racial and gender disparities persist at VMI
  2. VMI’s culture creates barriers to addressing and solving these problems.
  3. VMI must be held accountable.

If you’re interested you can read the public report.  But that isn’t what caught my attention.  What caught my attention is how deeply the school (faculty and cadets) resisted the investigation.  The executive summary states:

“The reaction to the investigation from the larger VMI community and the Institute itself demonstrates the effect of this problematic culture. The unusual amount of vitriol, criticism, condescension, and condemnation from many in the VMI community regarding the investigation has been alarming.”

“Additionally, despite a pledge of cooperation, VMI’s leadership sought to control the investigation, the message, and the report’s findings.”

“VMI also sought to keep members of the VMI community, including current senior administrators, from participating in interviews, and it engaged in public messaging designed to encourage the VMI community to disbelieve and reject this report, particularly when their efforts to thwart the investigation proved unsuccessful. These actions by VMI negatively impacted the investigation, especially because, as VMI knew, there was no process to compel VMI’s cooperation.”

So, I have to ask the question: What are they afraid of?

Perhaps they are afraid of change.  I get that.  We all get a little testy when our world changes around us.

Perhaps they are afraid of losing their heritage.  Again, that is a genuine concern for a school so steeped in the history of our country.  They don’t want what they have esteemed for so long to be cancelled.

Perhaps they are afraid of losing their power.  There are a lot of celebrity thought leaders today who want to empower the white male to stay in power.  The changes in our country’s demographics don’t bode well for sustaining that power.

Perhaps they resent the legislation that forced a more diverse cadet population.  Reading the investigative report, one gets the sense that is an underlying theme….”Heck, we let ‘em in, what more do you want?”

A microcosm

What is happening at VMI seems to be a microcosm of what is happening in our country.   All of the past legislative attempts to force equality are blowing up in resistance.  It seems to me that there is a segment of the country that really never wanted the equality in the first place.  Perhaps they really didn’t understand that until now.  And as they grow louder in their voices, their ears are closing up.

Is there a segment of the population that doesn’t really want equality?  I really don’t think that is the case.  Instead, I think that segment is frightened.  What might they be frightened of?

Perhaps they are frightened that the results of their hard work is being channeled to those who don’t want to work hard.  I get that.  I don’t want to evolve to a point people who do not contribute to the economy are able to live the same life I live.

Perhaps they are frightened that their values system is eroding, being replaced by those who don’t have the same reverence for our country.  I get that too.  It does seem that many of the traditions and symbols that we grew up with don’t hold the same strength, and that makes me sad.

Perhaps they worry that what made America a great nation is crumbling. I think it is, actually.  I think our country is going down a path that can easily wipe out everything for everyone.

Adam Kinzinger, (R-IL) made a comment recently that, with all of the bickering and in-fighting, we run the risk of not having the wherewithal to address critical issues facing the country and, we may all lose.

Our power grid is at risk.

We are teaching a slanted view of history to our children and are happy with that.

We are so busy arguing about the yes/no question of where there is climate change that we aren’t discussing and addressing any real issues that we could actually fix.

We are spending a great deal of time, energy, and money on finding the cause of COVID.  Why are we doing that?  I suspect that it isn’t to conduct a “lessons learned” exercise but instead is simply so one side can point the finger at the other.

We’ve got to stop this

We’ve got to stop this, folks.  This isn’t who we are, and the future before us isn’t where we want to be.

When we won’t engage in a civil conversation with someone we know “leans” differently, we’ve lost.  And quite frankly, we’ve got an awful lot to lose.

What are we afraid of?

What should we be afraid of?


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. I wrote a long comment, then blew it by not posting it correctly. The essence of it is that as much as millions of Americans agree that the divisiveness in the country is not ‘who we are’. I guess I have an issue with that in that tens of millions of your voters elected an authoritarian fascist who does not have the brains god gave a gnat. And as long as that lever of ignorance, and hatred for the other side exists in your country, there will always be a huge divide.

    • There always has been, Jim. Read about the vitriol that spewed as the founders tried to come to agreement on what our country should be. It just seems to me, and I could be off base here, that it really does boil down to fear of change.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Carol: An excellent article with very valid points. Perhaps VMI is a microism of our country at this time. Many don’t want the culture of our past to change, while many others want to wipe it all away as if we have no history. Sadly those diverse views are more and more leading to violence on our city streets, our work places, and even in our schools. How do we stop this slide into oblivion? I wish I had a pat answer that everyone could apply and we would have all these problems turn to smoke and evaporate. Unfortunately, I don’t have any quick fixes, and frankly I doubt there are any.

    I fear that conditions will continue to deteriorate until the lid blows off and where that leads is anyones guess, but it won’t be a pretty place.

    • Thanks Ken, and I worry about that as well. The conversation I had with my friend that I wrote about earlier really did a number on my hope that there can ever be change. When someone doesn’t want to talk about the content because they are comfortable with their own beliefs and don’t want any possibility of change, that’s just scary to me. I don’t know if you follow Adam Kinzinger’s Country 1st movement, but his point about the possibility that we all lose if we don’t do this differently really resonated with me.

  3. I have been a student of America for more than 50 years. A lot of people make many of the same arguments as you do in this piece. “This is not who we are.” I hear that a lot too. And frankly there is a substantial amount of evidence that points to the fact that this really is who you are. Racism, sexism, misogyny, protectionism all abound in your country. The battle to level the playing field for all Americans is one that has only achieved limited success. The fact that 72,000,000 of your citizens would vote for an authoritarian, fascist without the brains that god gave an gnat, speaks volumes about the nature of your country. Your government is owned by special interests who call all the shots. Your media is mostly designed to keep people in a state of fear. And the good people, who are still the majority, thank God, have no idea how to deal with all the systemic violence, racism, and sexism. I watch Joe Biden, who really has a chance to makes some positive changes, tiptoe around like he doesn’t want to offend anyone. I see gun violence escalating, and right wing politics becoming even more dangerous. For half the people, this may very well not be who you are. But for the other half, not so much. I think it’s important to keep shouting as loud as you can. But my fear is that the people who really need to hear the message just ain’t listening.