Alumni Review

The Peay Endowment for Academic Excellence: A Transformational Opportunity



The Institute, long known for its pursuit of excellence, currently enjoys a national reputation for an academic and leadership program that best prepares leaders of character. This success is due to the dedication of the Institute leaders, faculty and staff as well as the vision and generosity of VMI alumni and friends.

Maintaining that reputation in an ever-changing world, where competition for top faculty and students is fierce, requires a long-term plan. Such a plan is embodied in the January 2017 resolution by VMI’s Board of Visitors initiating The General J.H. Binford Peay III 1962 Endowment for Academic Excellence. First-rate academics stem primarily from two sources: Students, and the professors who teach them. The Peay Endowment addresses attracting, maintaining and retaining outstanding faculty and cadets through three components: Merit Scholars, Chairs and Fellowships.

The Merit Scholars component builds on the already-excellent Institute Scholars program – which is normally able to provide only partial scholarships for academically high-performing cadets. Each year, VMI loses academically gifted applicants to other top colleges, including the service academies, said Col. Rob McDonald, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs. “Often, the decision comes down to the economics, and they frequently decide to go to the place where their education is fully underwritten.” VMI must be able to compete for these students on a level playing field.

The Merit Scholars Fund will have the ability to offer full scholarships to these top prospects who – beyond stellar academic achievement and future potential – demonstrate qualities intrinsic to VMI: Exceptional leadership, commitment to personal physical fitness and interest in national service. The Institute also has the flexibility to designate worthy rising 2nd and 1st Class cadets as Peay Merit Scholars. Immersing this level of cadets in VMI’s academic programs has the potential to bring top-flight academic recognition to VMI – including the possibility of Rhodes, Marshall, Truman and Goldwater scholar winners.

On the faculty side, the Chairs component not only gives recognition to distinguished faculty members, but adds a practical, financial aspect. Each Peay Chair recipient receives a full salary, plus an additional bonus as a nod to excellence in scholarship. Thanks to the generous support – nearly $18 million – already committed by alumni and friends, the first two Peay Chairs have been awarded to deserving recipients among VMI’s faculty: Col. Troy Siemers, Ph.D., head of the applied math department, and Col. Gregory Topasna, Ph.D., physics and astronomy professor.

“VMI faculty are dedicated to teaching and mentorship of cadets. All of them are serious and prolific scholars, often with national and international reputations,” said Brig. Gen. Bob Moreschi, dean of the faculty. “VMI faculty embrace – for the Institute and the cadets – the qualities that the BOV stated in its resolution about the Peay Endowment and General Peay: ‘Character, leadership and service.’”

Donald Wilkinson ’61, former member of the Board of Visitors, is the Peay Endowment cabinet chair and, along with an outstanding group of talented alumni, is spearheading the new endowment aimed at keeping VMI at the forefront of academic excellence. Wilkinson said, “It is imperative that we be competitive for all our faculty positions and give special recognition to our most distinguished professors.”

The Peay Endowment’s third component also addresses VMI’s culture by looking to the future from a grass-roots home-grown perspective. Peay Fellowships promote careers in academia for graduating cadets and alumni by providing funding for graduate education. Specifically, Peay Fellows will receive funding for two years of graduate education, followed by two years of service on VMI’s faculty as “Instructors in Residence.” These fellowships – awarded to cadets and alumni who have demonstrated the ability, passion and potential for successful careers in higher education – will encourage alumni to seek positions within VMI’s renowned faculty. Having academically qualified alumni on the faculty adds an intangible benefit to VMI’s unique education system: It puts professors who understand the cadet experience firsthand in close proximity with the Corps, allowing for robust support and mentorship.

The BOV resolution of Jan. 28, 2017, stated that the endowment honors the Institute’s 14th superintendent for the “exemplary qualities of character and leadership he demonstrated through a lifetime of selfless service, beginning as a VMI cadet.” The resolution goes on to note General Peay’s all-around “devotion to excellence” as a cadet: In Corps military activities, in service on the Honor Court, as football team quarterback and academically as a civil engineering major.

“Who better to exemplify the traits of well-rounded, high-achieving cadets?” said Bill Boland ’73, president of VMI’s Board of Visitors.

The Peay Endowment will be transformational for VMI’s ongoing academic program – transformational for cadets, faculty and VMI’s reputation as a national treasure. The Endowment’s immediate goals are to endow 20 scholars, four fellows and 16 chairs.

Supporters can choose from four avenues for investment:

  • The Peay Academic Excellence Fund: Provides Institute leadership with the greatest amount of flexibility and discretion in determining priorities for each of the three initiatives.
  • Peay Merit Scholars: Dedicated to awarding full-ride scholarships to high priority cadets.
  • Peay Chairs: Provides opportunity for supporters to combine funding and endow chairs that support top-performing faculty dedicated to the education of cadets.
  • Peay Fellows: Supports gifted cadets and alumni in the pursuit of graduate degrees and places them on career paths in higher education. Peay Fellows will spend two years on post as adjunct faculty while building experience and expertise to position them well as faculty at VMI or elsewhere.

“This is a noble endeavor: A long-term effort to build a sizable endowment to ensure VMI’s academic competitiveness in perpetuity,” Wilkinson said. “The end game is producing young men and women – committed to lives of honor, integrity and responsibility to others – who are going to lead this country in the future. That’s VMI’s mission. Ethical leaders; leaders with a moral compass.”

  • Molly Rolon

    Molly Rolon Associate Editor/Writer

    The associate editor/writer assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication. The associate editor serves as liaison between class agents and chapter presidents and the Agencies’ publications, as well as provides backup photography for events.