After a tumultuous decade marked by enrollment declines, financial woes, layoffs, constant turnover at the top, allegations of cadet hazing, and other discipline problems, Valley Forge Military Academy and College and its vocal stakeholders thought they’d found a savior when Walter T. Lord took over as president less than a year ago.
Last week’s news of the abrupt and unexpected departure of Lord — a 54-year-old retired Army major general and prominent Valley Forge grad — has roiled alumni and other stakeholders, with some comparing the drama to the 1981 movie Taps, which was filmed on the Radnor Township campus and was centered on a scheme to close a military academy, with students barricading themselves inside to save it.
Many of the alumni and parents who’ve been venting their anger online and sharing speculation about the reasons behind Lord’s resignation say they now plan to storm a meeting slated for 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the school to address the turmoil, which has prompted at least two Valley Forge trustees to resign.
“I agree with what so many others are saying ... that this is our ‘Taps’ moment,” wrote one cadet’s parent, in a private online posting shared with The Inquirer. “We need to make a stand.” More than 2,000 alumni and others have signed a Change.org petition urging more transparency and a resolution from the trustees and to keep Lord in command.
Neither school trustees — including the chairman, John English — nor Lord himself have said much about the retired general’s March 8 announcement on Facebook that “I’ve had a philosophical disagreement with our board chairman and I’ve come to realize that a bridge between our perspectives was not reachable.”
In a sign of the escalating uproar, English on Sunday wrote to Lord — who said he’d offered to stay on through June 30 — and terminated him immediately, stating that while initially the president’s departure date had been open-ended, the rising chorus of commentaries about what had happened “have created separate issues detrimental to the institution.”
On Friday, Lord reposted a message from a year ago on Facebook: “When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The information will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that other people will eventually see the truth just like you did.”
English, who’d said initially that Lord had resigned of his own accord because of “irreconcilable differences,” did not return calls this week seeking comment. And Lord — who shortly before his resignation had written on Twitter, “Wisdom is knowing the right path to take. ... Integrity is taking it” — also could not be reached.
“Everybody’s guessing, because the board of trustees doesn’t tell anybody anything,” said one Valley Forge alumnus, who like others requested anonymity. He said that stakeholders are reeling from the loss of the military academy’s third leader in four years and that Lord had “immediately started righting the ship” by increasing enrollment and alumni donations when he arrived last April.
“Reality is [that] General Lord is the face of our school [and] a walking billboard of all our school has to offer,” another alumnus wrote in the Facebook group, one of many praising the South Philadelphia native. “His passion is magnetic and attracts support.”
Founded in 1928, Valley Forge Military Academy and College — an all-boys private school for cadets in grades 6-12, and also offering a two-year coed college program — is the only recognized military academy in Pennsylvania. It has produced famous alumni including Iraq War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, and Arizona Cardinals all-pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Tuition is about $45,000 a year for boarding students and $30,000 for day students.
However, the last decade, an era of struggle generally for military high schools, has been a time of upheaval on the Valley Forge campus. In 2016, a reported annual loss of $300,000 and a dip in enrollment came as the then-president was ousted and 16 staffers laid off. The prior year, according to the Main Line Times, the academy’s former Title IX compliance officer filed a whistle-blower complaint with the U.S. Department of Education citing violent hazing rituals and allegations that included sexual assault by students.
A number of alumni have said that Lord was on track to resolving many of those problems. In the wake of his departure, many online posters raised questions about whether Valley Forge was again considering admitting non-military students who wouldn’t wear uniforms — similar to a failed experiment several years earlier — or whether trustees wish to sell some of its valuable Main Line real estate.
One trustee, Roque Schipilliti, said on Facebook Monday he’s quitting the board but remaining as president of the school’s alumni association. Another trustee, Maj. Gen. Jessica Garfola Wright, a former undersecretary in the Department of Defense, posted that she quit the day after Lord’s initial resignation but would have voted against accepting the move and making his departure immediate.