VMI admins clash with students and alumni over journal


A student-run publication or a spokesperson for disgruntled alumni? This question is at the heart of an ongoing dispute over the recent resurrection of a student newspaper at the Virginia Military Institute.

Known as The youngest, the journal appeared in the spring of 2021, when it launched with a graduation edition. And almost as soon as The youngest arose, just like a battle on paper. The dispute is an extension of the tug of war between the administration and alumni over a host of changes at the historic military college, including a new commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Student journalists now find themselves caught between the two.

Indeed, the story of The youngest as a VMI publication dates back to 1871 when it was launched as a magazine. It was converted into a newspaper in 1907 and ran until 2016 when it went out of print due to lack of interest, according to VMI officials.

Now The youngest a is reborn, this time as a non-profit organization supported and supervised by alumni but under the control of student journalists. Proponents suggest establishing it as 501(c)(3) is the best way to raise funds to keep the newspaper going and avoid another potential shutdown. But the publication is not officially recognized by the VMI and operates independently, meaning it has no access to university resources.

For the majority, The youngest, available online and in print, much like most other college newspapers: sports, student and alumni articles, editorials. The newspaper even tackles news specific to the VMI campus that has apparently not been reported elsewhere, such as the Board of Visitors earn rewards named after Confederates Stonewall Jackson and Moses Ezekiel. But beyond the news, the opinion pages contain a significant amount of commentary chastising VMI executives for the challenges the paper has faced and decrying the changes at the college.

Editorial Independence Matters

Getting started was not easy. Although the newspaper is printed and distributed every two weeks, it has encountered some challenges. Chief among them: The youngest is caught in the crossfire between college alumni and management taking the institution in a new direction, determined to change a culture that condoned racism and sexism under the previous administration, according to a external report.

Now, that battle spills over to the newspaper.

“When this journal was created, it was very alumni-focused, and that was a concern for us,” VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt said. “[Superintendent Cedric T.] Wins has said from the start that he is 100% supportive of a cadet-run journal, one that has an academic advisor and is run and published entirely for cadets. He has no problem with this concept. The concern at the beginning was that there was a lot of influence from the elders.

But Jason Poblete, legal counsel representing The youngest and its supporting organization, the Cadet Foundation, disputes that alumni have any influence over the newspaper’s operations.

“Student editors are ultimately responsible for making all decisions regarding editorial content,” Poblete said.

Poblete declined to say who hired him to advance The youngestinvoking solicitor-client privilege.

The Student Press Law Center, which pushed VMI to recognize the newspaper, notes that it believes students are responsible, SPLC attorney Mike Hiestand wrote in an email.

“We only work with student-edited media, so it was important that I heard from the students themselves before getting involved. The students assured me that they are the ones who make the final editorial decisions. Alumni and other journalism advisers (they work with professional journalists) are, from all I have observed, advisers,” Hiestand said. “Their advice on editorial matters can either be accepted or ignored. by the students.”

He added that because the newspaper operates as a non-profit organization, advisers are more heavily involved “on the business, logistics and fundraising side.” He also suggested that when the document was launched last spring, “there was a real concern that cadets might be targeted by the administration for working on The youngest and the alum and other advisers wanted to act as a buffer.

But a student journalist working for the paper said by email: “the rumor that The youngest is run by alumni is partially true,” noting the influence of VMI graduates Bob Morris and Thomas Wilson.

The student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from VMI management, suggested that Morris, who relaunched the journal and established the 501(c)(3) Cadet Foundation, is “the principal newspaper engine”. Morris also runs The youngestrecruits staff and connects students with sources, the student said, adding that the newspaper has published articles by Morris.

“He also wrote stories for the newspaper, but I have no idea because we attribute a lot of stories to the ‘VMI Cadet Staff’, that’s how he publishes his stories,” said the student. .

Morris – who is also the plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against VMI earlier this month seeking an end to its diversity, equity and inclusion practices, which he declined to discuss – played down his contributions .

“Volunteers alumni and non-alumni (of which I am just one) help research topics when asked,” Morris said in an email. “In the past, especially for alumni articles like ‘profiles in leadership articles’, cadets would get feedback from alumni and even family members of deceased alumni, like the any journalist would do. These are all noted in the lines of the articles, where applicable. I believe an example is the Sentinel Box story in the May edition and the feature on Colonel William Powell in the Reunion edition. I was present the night Colonel Powell was killed and so I and the others were asked to give their opinion.”

Morris also declined to confirm whether he had hired Poblete, citing solicitor-client privilege.

The permit process

Student journalists also face challenges unique to VMI’s structure as a military college. Students are required to have permits to withdraw from certain academic or military duties and direct time elsewhere. For example, a student who wanted to leave campus to interview a source or work at the offices of the local newspaper where The youngest is published would need a permit for “off post”. Yet, to date, VMI has not agreed to license students who publish the journal.

Wyatt, the VMI spokesman, suggested that a permit has not yet been granted because of the way Morris has gone about establishing the journal as a nonprofit organization independent of the university.

According to Wyatt, VMI had already received a request from students last spring to start a journalism club and newspaper, which would be considered by the Cadet Activities Committee in the fall. But Morris established The youngest, independent of VMI, before the end of the student application process. Now that The youngest exists, officials say VMI has no plans to launch a competing newspaper.

And while Wyatt said “VMI would dispute that this is a continuation of the journal that was started in the 1870s,” he thinks recognition is on the horizon. But according to his account, Morris’ actions ultimately delayed the recognition of the document and the licensing process.

“When the old mentors came out and created the separate 501(c)(3) and said, ‘No, actually, we’re not part of VMI,’ that kicked them out of the permitting process,” said Wyatt.

But Poblete argues that it is VMI that is dragging out the licensing process and setting up roadblocks as a means of cracking down on the paper.

“There’s a lot going on at VMI right now that frankly has absolutely nothing to do with paper. Cadets are sort of caught in the middle. They don’t want to be caught in the middle of it all. But that’s what happened, in my opinion, from the outside. The college administration tried to reform the VMI system,” he said. “And I think the administration has a problem in how they’re going to treat a student newspaper in this reorganization.”

Similarly, the student journalist who requested anonymity believes that VMI wants to maintain a tightly controlled narrative on campus that an independent student newspaper is threatening.

“I personally believe that due to the fact that VMI recently made national headlines, VMI really wants to control all postings coming from its cadets, faculty and staff,” the student wrote, adding that “only specific cadets are authorized to speak to the media and all academic departments and clubs must obtain explicit permission to have a website or social media account.

The path to follow

As a public college, VMI must yield to the First Amendment, though the unusual permit process allows the college to impose certain limitations — or at least inconveniences — depending on the structure of the military institution. Similarly, students fear that management will apply the institution’s strict rules in retaliation, arbitrarily punishing them for editorial decisions.

But finally, it seems that the newspaper tends towards recognition.

“Hopefully we can find some common ground where we can acknowledge them,” Wyatt said. “Of course, VMI in no way disputes their right to free speech or to contribute to or run a newspaper.”

Wyatt adds that the administration does not seek editorial control or prior review. Because the journal should provide a learning experience for cadets, the college hopes to attach an academic advisor to help guide students. And there are no plans to put the newspaper under the authority of VMI’s public relations office.

“I think my role as director of communications — someone who spreads information about VMI, someone who advocates and promotes VMI — would be a conflict of interest,” Wyatt said.

Hiestand suggests that both sides continue to weigh things up as the conflict continues.

“I think VMI administrators, like those at many public colleges we work with at the Student Press Law Center, are not thrilled that The youngest was brought back to life and is now watching and reporting independently,” Hiestand wrote. “It’s much easier when the only ‘news’ comes out of a college’s public relations office. Fortunately, the law protects student staff, and I hope the parties will settle things peacefully — or at least find some kind of detente.

In the meantime, the newspaper continues to be distributed on campus, a relief to students who saw VMI staff remove the newspaper from a local Chamber of Commerce event months earlier, apparently because it didn’t. it was not an official publication of the college. And the resurrected newspaper, whether influenced by alumni or completely independent, is apparently here to stay.


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