Full Transcript -- Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira interviews Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins ’85, interim superintendent, Jan. 27, 2021:
Ian Shapira: Let me just sort of get into it because I don’t want to waste your time. I know you’ve got a lot of things going on. So I’m writing a piece about the honor code, the history of it, what people are wanting to see happen with it, what people want to preserve from it, that kind of thing.
Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins: Sure.
Shapira: In January you wrote that letter to the VMI community, and you said the single-sanction honor code will continue to be a national model, and I mentioned this to Bill in an email. My understanding is that you had at least one listening session with faculty members where you said you wanted their feedback on the value or lack of value of that system, and then Bill followed up with another email asking faculty members to respond about what they see as the value or lack of value of the system, and so I guess my first big question to you is, are you considering making changes to the system, and if so, what specifically are you targeting?
Wins: Yeah, so I would tell you first of all that I want to draw a distinction between the honor code and the system that’s designed to enforce it or ensure that it remains strong.
Wins: The code is very simple, and I think in that simplicity it gives our cadets an opportunity to come in, to think about it, to learn about it, and then to commit to it as a personal area of integrity that they inspire for themselves, so I’m not talking about doing anything to the code. I think over the decades or centuries that we’ve had the code, I think the code represents one of the unique aspects of VMI.
Shapira: Got it.
Wins: The honor system has certainly changed over that same period of time. When I was here as a cadet, to my recollection, the honor court rendered the guilt or innocence decision of a cadet, and that no longer happens. It is more of a representative jury selected from their peers.
Shapira: Got it.
Wins: And so, from time to time, just like all systems, you want to make sure that the system as it was intended to operate has not kind of fallen off path or deviated or strayed from its overall objectives and its intent, so that’s what I’m talking about, to try and get an understanding of the system as it has evolved, and then to make sure that it certainly represents modern-day administrative processes for determining whether someone has committed an honor violation.
Shapira: So it sounds like you are considering making some kind of changes to the system, the honor court process—not the code, but the other aspect of it, the system.
Wins: Yeah, I think the system requires a review, as has happened over many years.
Shapira: Got it. And aside from the fact—I don’t know when this happened, but back in your day, the honor court made the decision of guilt or innocence, then at some point they changed it to a jury system. I don’t know—do you know when that happened, when that change occurred?
Wins: No, I don’t. Not off the top of my head, I don’t. Sorry.
Shapira: Got it. But basically, when you review the system, do you make a proposal to the Board of Visitors and they’re the ones that ultimately make the change? Or is it whatever you come up with, your team, that’s what goes?
Wins: I think my approach would be number one, to ensure that we have cadet involvement, and that’s largely going to be with the members of the honor court, and then we have the superintendent’s advisors. So we have three advisors that are not members of any class. They are a standing group that helps steer the process to make sure that things are done properly. They would be involved, and then I believe I’ll have to make sure that whatever changes we come up with, that the Board is properly informed about it so they understand what changes are being proposed and why. And it really centers on, at least to my thinking right now, changes on how we do oversight, the oversight mechanism of the honor system.
Shapira: But basically, does the Board—I’m sorry—does the Board have to approve any changes you make to the honor system, or do you know yet?
Wins: To my knowledge, they don’t, but I work for the Board. I was appointed by the BOV president, and so certainly, I would make sure that they’re informed.
Shapira: Okay, gotcha. The biggest component of the honor system, of course, is the single sanction aspect of it, and I wanted to ask you, is this something that’s under your review as well? The other military schools don’t have single-sanction. VMI, to my knowledge, is the only one that does. The other service academies, including Virginia Tech, Citadel, and the federal ones all have some kind of leniency or mediation programs, but I wanted to ask you specifically, is single-sanction something you’re considering either doing away with or revising somehow?
Wins: Yeah, so right now I would tell you I think it’s very important to understand the value of the single sanction from VMI’s perspective, and so it is hard for me, first of all, and again, I’ve kind of lived this thing, and I’ve had a lot of classmates and friends who’ve also gone through this same experience, and then combined with my 34 years of military experience, it’s hard for me to understand how you can do anything other than make sure the single-sanction system is applied consistently. The idea of kind of having this sliding-scale system of what it means to not have lied, cheated, or stolen, is something that we’ve always held onto at VMI to ensure that number one, the students understand it, they internalize it, it is reinforced to them the importance of it. And then the students buy into it, and so then to alter that with a sliding scale of whether or not you lied and to what degree, I think just lowers the standard, and we have done—gone to great lengths, because we think it’s appropriate, to not lower the standard, and it’s certainly not a standard that’s unachievable by any student that comes to VMI.
Shapira: So single-sanction is off the table. You’re definitely going to keep that.
Wins: Yeah, that’s my intent. I certainly am open to a discussion about it, but my intent is that I don’t believe that over all of these years, it’s anything but proper to not introduce a sliding scale of whether or not an honor violation has been committed and then how the punishment should occur.
Shapira: Got it, yeah, so basically, single sanction, your intent is to keep it. You’re open to discussion about possibly removing it and replacing it, but for now, you’ll keep it.
Shapira: Got it. The military academies, when I speak to them about why they don’t have a single-sanction system, they say that cheating scandals back in the ‘70s and the ‘90s convinced them that the single-sanction system, for them at least, did not work, that they had chances to develop the character of their cadets and give them second chances, depending on the circumstances.
Shapira: Have you looked at remediation and leniency? What do you make of that argument?
Wins: Well, I think that again, for us, we’ve always maintained that this whole idea of a sliding scale doesn’t work in terms of teaching young cadets to prioritize personal integrity and hold themselves and their peers accountable to meet the standards we discuss with them, we reinforce with them, and we encourage them to adopt and embrace here at VMI. I would say that all of those standards are achievable. The bar is not set so high—personal integrity, not lying, cheating, or stealing, or tolerating anyone who does. I don’t think that bar is set so high that it is unachievable by any young man or woman who comes here. And the ones who do come here and accept that, I was an example of one—I was no angel, I’ve told folks that I was no angel when I came out of high school—you do it because you know it’s something you can live up to, and then over time you begin to recognize that your successes or failures are all based on you. I think the other point I would make is that as we develop and grow these young men and women, help them develop their character, we send them out into a world where there are consequences for doing things that breach trust. That’s what integrity and that’s what honor is all about. It’s about trust. And when you breach that trust, it is often something that’s very, very difficult to recapture.
Shapira: Gotcha, okay. Um, as you know, I reported back in December that honor code violations, that minority students and Black students have been disproportionately expelled by the honor system, and I wanted to ask you specifically, does this concern you? And if it does concern you, what can you do to fix it?
Wins: Yeah, so I appreciate that question because the numbers we provided to you were numbers that I had asked for. And so I see that when you look strictly at the numbers, there is a disproportionate appearance of the numbers, and so there’s no denying that. What I’m most concerned with here at VMI is whether there’s a causal relationship that would suggest that given those numbers, that there is some inappropriate type of targeting or something like that that would occur. The other point I would make is that when it comes to honor court cases, Ian, the numbers on a year-to-year basis are extremely low, less than 1 percent of the students who are asked to leave VMI are the result of honor court cases. And furthermore, the majority of honor court cases typically come about through the reporting of faculty with respect to the suspicion of cheating by a cadet.
Shapira: Yeah. So basically, it does concern you, your job is now to figure out if there’s an actual, causal relationship between the mere fact of the expulsion and the race of the student being expelled.
Wins: Yes. And I think that it’s not only what I’ve charged my folks to begin to examine, but it’s also this equity audit and this investigation that’s been directed by the governor of the state of Virginia.
Shapira: Got it. So I guess the law firm is also looking at this as well?
Wins: I don’t know exactly what they’re looking at. I would anticipate that given the basis for which this whole investigation was formed, I would anticipate that’s something they’re going to be looking into as well.
Shapira: Got it. In my article, I was only able to obtain data for three years. Are you going to try to get the data on the number of cadets expelled by the honor court and their race over a longer period of years? Are you going to try and go for 10, 15, 20 years? I don’t know—what kind of data will you try to get in this regard?
Wins: Yeah, I think the investigation is starting to frame the data collection effort. We would only be able to provide the data for which we are required to retain, and I can’t tell you right now how far that data goes back based on what we are legally obligated to retain.
Shapira: Got it. And do you think that you’ll make those numbers public?
Wins: I think that upon the completion of the investigation, yes.
Shapira: Okay. Got it, okay. And then, a couple, a few more questions—
Wins: Sure thing.
Shapira: On the system itself. Of course, it came up in my last article about split juries. This is actually something that makes VMI quite similar to the federal service academies. They allow split juries to convict a cadet. The only one I could find, actually, that is not like that is the Citadel, which requires a 10-cadet unanimous jury. So I guess my question to you is, is this specific element of the honor system something that you’re examining, whether or not a cadet should be convicted by a split jury or unanimously, and the reason I ask this is because yes, the federal service academies also do this, but they don’t have single sanction, so I guess the question would be, with so much on the line, like expulsion, do you think split juries are fair?
Wins: Yeah, so I can’t—I won’t answer whether it’s fair or not. I certainly believe that the process that we do, from all of the accounts and what I’ve been briefed on, I certainly believe that the process is fair, that it affords the accused student every opportunity to build a robust defense, and/or admit their guilt or innocence. So I have no problems with the process. What I would say is that again, going to this whole discussion about making sure that the system is consistent in such a way that particularly in modern day, it reflects the proper manner in which we want to identify and give a fair opportunity for an accused student to defend any accusations, to make sure that the outcome is such that if they were innocent of an honor violation, we find them innocent of the violation and that we move forward and that it is of no consequence or no further detriment to the student, so I believe that that is something we’re going to need to take a look at.
Shapira: What specifically would you take a look at?
Wins: Whether or not the supermajority of the votes of the jury panel is sufficient or whether you need, we should implement, a unanimous vote process, to determine guilt or innocence.
Shapira: So the jury process— the question of unanimity is something you’re definitely considering changing, basically, it’s something you’re looking at?
Wins: That’s something I want to look at, absolutely.
Shapira: Okay, um, got it. When I speak to alumni about this, this is something they talk about, which is basically—what I constantly hear from them is if you’re going to have a single-sanction system, make it a high bar and make it unanimous. On the other hand, I hear from other people saying, “Look, the United States Military Justice Code is not like this. Other federal service academies are not like this.” I hear different viewpoints all of the time.
Wins: Sure, sure. At the end of the day, at the end of the day I think what we need to make sure that we do, because we’re not about, some have said, we’re not about ruining the lives of cadets. We want the cadets to come in and embrace the system and the code of honor, embrace it, internalize it, ensure they can live up to it, and in those instances where they might fall short in preparation for things that might cause a conflict, that they make themselves accountable, right, A lot of these things are about the choices we make leading up to any particular infraction of an honor violation, right. There’s a choice aspect to that, and so we want to reinforce that to them, the value of it, the value of it in their lives, and help them understand that they have to own a shortcoming leading into a test if they’re not prepared rather than cheat on a test and then face an honor trial because they did not hold themselves accountable for either being prepared or not being prepared for an exam or turning in a paper or something else.
Shapira: Okay, but just one question, a bit longer: What appeals to you about a unanimous jury, what aspect of unanimity appeals to you, when you’ve got these cases?
Wins: I suspect that, as you pointed out, it would probably make us more consistent with administrative hearings or certainly, and I’m not an expert in this area, jurisprudence, and again, what I think we ought to do, in those instances where we have to do the unfortunate thing of telling a student that they violated the honor code, and that their peers have judged such, I want to make sure that we’ve given them every opportunity to defend themselves, and that the jury and the honor court are clear-eyed about the decision they made and the recommendation that comes to the superintendent.
Shapira: Got it. Okay. Just a few more questions. Sorry. Another thing that came up in my reporting was the honor court’s longtime use of using third-party cadets to surveil other cadets enlisted by the honor court to essentially spy on them and try to catch them in the act of cheating. This caused a lot of uproar in my inbox when we reported it. It’s been well known by the school, and I know that the group of four alumni that’s been quite vocal about all this, they wrote you a memo about it last week, and this was one of their things that they wanted to talk to you about. And I wanted to ask you, what do you make of the use of third-party cadets as spies?
Wins: Sure. So I would tell you a couple of things. Number one, over the years, and certainly during my cadetship, there were a lot of—I’ll call them urban myths about the honor system and how it was enforced. I think it is pretty evident that there are cases out there where—the example that you bring up has occurred, and so I think, again, you think about this in modern day, that’s something we need to take a look at. I’m more of the mind—again, I’m more of the mind that if a person is a cheater, if a person is a liar, if a person is a thief, they will do it in such a way where the evidence will be clear. I’m more of a mind that that aspect of the enforcement of the honor system is something we need to take a look at.
Shapira: So this aspect of using spies is something that you’re looking at getting rid of, or doing away with, or reducing? What exactly are you looking at when it comes to using spies?
Wins: Well, I think it’s something we need to look at. I think I’d be interested in understanding the extent to which it happens—if it happens. I’d be interested in taking a look at the circumstances that build toward it, so an example—and I don’t know if this is an example that would prove to be accurate—say for example, you had an individual that—all of a sudden, again, going back to the urban myth—it was reported that an individual might have cheated on something and then all of a sudden someone decides that just based on that instance, you’ve got to do something—to set up a ruse, if you will. And again, it is just part of the overall, broader assessment that I think we need to do, or the review that we need to do.
Shapira: Okay. Um, let’s see here. Again, another issue I brought up before was the time-honored ritual of drum-out ceremonies at VMI. Do you think the drum-out ceremonies should stay or go?
Wins: Right now I would say that I believe that the drum-out ceremonies and the purpose that they serve is something I would be in favor of continuing on with because—and just so you understand, the drum-outs don’t involve the student that was found guilty. That practice was long abandoned. I think if we started doing—enforcing an honor code and drum-outs in the honor system back in the 1900s, that whole process was gone away probably in the 1950s, is what I think I was told. But what the drum-out is—it’s a reminder to the cadets that remain a part of the Corps of the commitment that they have made to prioritize their personal integrity and to hold themselves accountable.
Shapira: I mean, I guess what I would say is, what I hear from a lot of people outside the VMI community and within in it, is that it’s deeply embarrassing to the students who do it. What do you make of this? Like, these are kids who have already been kicked off campus, and now they’re being publicly humiliated in a ceremony on campus involving drums.
Wins: Yes, yes.
Wins: Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Shapira: I guess the question would be, to you, is: what does that type of ceremony have to do with honor?
Wins: Well, again, the ceremony doesn’t involve the student who has already been told that they are no longer going to be a member of the Corps of Cadets. It is a reminder to the members of the Corps of Cadets what they have said, what they’ve committed to in terms of prioritizing personal honor. We are looking at the modification of what is said about the cadet who has been found guilty, to make sure that particularly in this modern day, we are compliant with FERPA laws, but—
Shapira: That was my next question, actually.
Shapira: Right now, drum-outs announce the names of these cadets or identify them. When I spoke with the Education Department about this the other week, they said they can’t say for sure whether this is in violation of FERPA. A student would have to make a complaint to them—
Shapira: How are you all sure that it doesn’t violate it—or it sounds like something you’re looking at, basically, at getting rid of?
Wins: Yeah, so it is something we’re looking at. We’re talking to our legal counsel that comes from the state Attorney General’s office. She has given me her legal opinion, her legal advice, and then it’s something we’re looking at in terms of how we would modify the actual event. We want to be—I fully intend to be in compliance with whatever the FERPA law is, and in this regard.
Col. Bill Wyatt: Ian, if I can just chime in—you know, if you call me and ask if a cadet is enrolled in the Institute, I can tell you yes or no. The fact that the drum-out ceremony says that Joe Smith is no longer a member of the Corps of Cadets, that does not violate FERPA. But—
Shapira: But when I asked the Department of Education that, they said that—I guess the question would be, it’s not a matter of whether the kid is in school or not, you’re letting people know that this person was expelled due to an honor code violation. That would be the FERPA violation.
Wyatt: Right, and that’s what we’re looking into with the attorney general’s office.
Shapira: And I guess my question for General Wins is, what prompted you to think about whether the identification of a student in a drum-out ceremony was a potential violation of FERPA? What made you think about that? The ceremony’s been like that for decades. What made you think of that all of a sudden?
Wins: Well, so, again, as I’ve come in, and over the just over 45 days that I’ve been here, I’ve made a number of public statements. I’ve made some statements directly to our cadets, who, you know, I focus on, and their parents and our alumni, and one of the things that I’ve tried to stress over and over again is the need for VMI to represent itself as being inclusive for all of the young men and women who choose to come here. We don’t bring young men and women here to fail. We have every expectation that they’re going to succeed. And so one of the things that I thought was going to be necessary for me to do was to hear from the faculty, the staff, and the cadets. In a number of the listening sessions, there were a couple of things that were pointed out that certainly were consistent with my thinking, consistent with some of the advice and counsel that I got from senior alums, senior people, and so I want to take a look at it. If it makes sense to do in terms of the right thing to do, in terms of implementing the necessary change, then I have no problem doing it.
Shapira: And so the issues of honor court and drum-outs, this has come up with faculty members and students in those listening sessions?
Wins: With faculty.
Shapira: With faculty. Okay. Just a couple more questions. Then I’ll let you go.
Wyatt: Ian, he has a call that he’s a couple minutes late for now, so we’ll give you one more.
Shapira: Okay. I guess you said—when you were a cadet at VMI, did you know any cadets that were expelled by the honor court? Do you remember the drum-out ceremonies? What was that like for you?
Wins: Sure. I can give you a couple things to kind of think about. The first drum-out for me, as a rat, was probably like it is for most cadets, right? It’s kind of intimidating, right, because from the time you get here—and I was a basketball athlete, so it was reinforced to me even more—people are stressing the importance of it, so at that early stage, I would say that I had not quite internalized it. But I knew what was at stake, and I committed that I was going to do everything within my power not to jeopardize the opportunity that was given. I would probably say that after that, each subsequent drum-out that occurred was just a consistent reminder, right, to just recommit myself to standing on my own merits and working as hard as I could. There was a time during my cadetship where—and this is another thing I’m looking at—where there was rumblings among the Corps that there might have been some targeting going on among athletes. And so what happened was myself and three of my classmates, we were asked to be observers on an upcoming trial. We weren’t voting members. We were observers. And so we participated as observers. We watched the trial from start to finish. We talked amongst ourselves about our observations and our thoughts of what was being presented, and it was clear to us that the verdict that had been rendered was the right verdict. And then I think as we went through the decertification process, what we were asked to do was not speak about the details of the case but to make sure—because you get barracks rumor, because barracks rumor tends to just happen—but they wanted to make sure that at least in this particular case, at least in this particular instance, if people began to say, well, because this individual was at athlete, and he was targeted because he was an athlete, and therefore he was drummed out—in this particular instance, we were able to say, “No, you know what? He actually was guilty.” We believed—
Shapira: This is a person whom you saw—in the trial you observed, he was an athlete.
Wins: Yes. Yes.
Shapira: And he was African-American as well?
Shapira: And you were brought in as an observer to make sure it was a fair trial?
Wins: And we were asked through the course of the process—we were asked our thoughts in terms of how things were organized, how things went, his representation, and so on and so forth.
Shapira: That was your senior year?
Wins: No, it was actually my 3rd Class year, so my second year there.
Shapira: I’m sorry. I guess my question is, were you slightly alarmed or puzzled as to why you were brought in in the first place?
Wins: No, I mean, again—no, I wasn’t alarmed by it. It made sense. There had been a few drum-outs that had occurred, and so the barracks rumblings had started. And, you know, the class leaders being very professional, very experienced in this, they knew, or they didn’t want this to be a concern that had no basis.
Shapira: I never got to congratulate you on your job, so congratulations.
Wins: Thank you. Appreciate it. And hopefully we can talk some more. So, can I ask you a question?
Shapira: You can ask me anything you’d like.
Wins: Sure. Overall, is your aim—I heard you at the start, you said you’re looking to do an article about honor systems as a whole. So VMI is just one example?
Shapira: The story is focused, obviously, on VMI, but I wanted to reach out to understand how VMI fits into the larger context of military schools. I had to talk to other military academies and the differences between the schools.
Shapira: The biggest difference is that VMI has single sanction. Nobody else does.
Shapira: The similarity is that you all have split juries, but then again, the federal service academies don’t automatically expel. And Citadel has a fairly different system. They don’t have single sanction, and they have unanimous juries, so it’s just interesting to me to do that kind of reporting. No other school has drum-outs.
Shapira: And so that’s another thing that makes VMI distinct as well. And then I wanted to understand the history of it as well. Hearing your point of view is really very powerful, and that’s the reason. It was meant to be a follow-up. That’s why.
Wins: No, that’s fair. I appreciate that.
Shapira: I appreciate you giving me the time. I’m grateful for it. I know you’re really, really busy, and I know you have bigger things to do than talk to me, so I’m grateful for it, so thank you.
Wins: All right, great. Thanks.
Shapira: Have a good one as well. And I’m going to try to come down. Friday morning at 8 o’clock is when you’re going to be presenting to the Board?
Wins: Uh, yes.
Shapira: Great. All right. Maybe I’ll see you then.
Wins: I’ll look forward to meeting you.
Shapira: Okay, thanks a lot, Bill.
Wyatt: Okay, we’ll see you.