By The Associated Press

State officials have ordered an outside investigation into Virginia Military Institute following a report in The Washington Post that described Black cadets and alumni facing “relentless racism.”

Gov. Ralph Northam co-wrote a letter Monday with other state officials and lawmakers to the state-supported school’s Board of Visitors expressing “deep concerns about the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at VMI. The letter said the state will fund an independent probe into the school’s culture, policies, practices and equity in disciplinary procedures, the Post reported.

Cadets filled every other seat in Cameron Hall for a speech from Vice President Mike Pence on Sept. 11. Photo by Jin Ni.

In response, the president of VMI’s Board of Visitors wrote in a letter Tuesday that the school would welcome a review and pledged its full cooperation.

“However, systemic racism does not exist here and a fair and independent review will find that to be true,” John William Boland wrote in the letter, which a school spokesman provided to The Associated Press.

State officials ordered the investigation after the newspaper published a weekend story that described an “atmosphere of hostility and cultural insensitivity” at the nation’s oldest state-supported military college. The story described incidents such as lynching threats and a white professor reminiscing in class about her father’s Ku Klux Klan membership.

The Roanoke Times also reported on Black alumni speaking out about racism at the school months ago.

Boland wrote that several of the incidents detailed in the Post’s story were many years old and that they “had more to do with an individual’s lapse of judgment than they do with the culture of the Institute.”

“Each one, as is the case with any allegation of racism or discrimination, was investigated thoroughly and appropriate action was meted out in a timely fashion,” he said in the letter.

The Post’s reporting cited interviews with more than a dozen current and former students of color.

Among them was William Bunton, a Black senior, who told the paper: “I wake up every day wondering, ‘Why am I still here?'”

Bunton said that after he and another Black student boycotted a September speech by Vice President Pence, they were punished with three weeks of confinement on campus, demerits and multiple hours of detention.

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at VMI on Sept. 10. He relayed the administration’s support of the military and expressed support for VMI cadets. Photo by Jin Ni.

Debate has swirled recently among alumni of VMI, which was founded in Lexington in 1839, about how its ties to the Confederacy should be memorialized, the Roanoke Times has reported. The school announced earlier this year that it had no plans to take down its Confederate monuments, but would be changing some of its longstanding traditions.

Multiple buildings on the campus are named for Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as well as other alumni and faculty who fought for the Confederacy. A statue of Jackson also stands in front of the barracks. Until a few years ago, freshman were required to salute it, the Post reported.

Among the changes announced by VMI’s superintendent, retired Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, in July were: reorienting flagpoles surrounding the Jackson statue and centering them at the new barracks, and relocating an oath ceremony from a battlefield where 10 VMI cadets died fighting for the Confederacy to school grounds.

In addition to Northam, who is a VMI graduate, co-signers of the Monday letter included Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Attorney General Mark Herring and top Democratic legislative leaders.

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