The Story of James Comey’s Most Explosive Investigation — in College

The Flat Hat

In 1980 James Comey, then a student journalist at the College of William & Mary, published a three-part series on the challenge of recruiting and retaining black students and faculty members. A quote in this piece offers the controversial view of a professor, Vernon Edmonds: “Affirmative Action is a futile attempt only tolerated because social concerns are dominated by feeling, not science.”

Trying to maintain a veneer of neutrality while investigating a potentially explosive topic, James B. Comey found himself at the center of a fight between a brash antagonist and a group of rank-and-file professionals desperate to protect themselves and their institution.

The year was 1980, and Mr. Comey, the future director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was a student journalist at the College of William & Mary.

Years later, after the release on Wednesday night of his sworn testimony to the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee, several people would applaud his prowess as a storyteller. But Mr. Comey’s work at The Flat Hat, the college’s student newspaper, received far less applause that fall semester.

In a three-part series first noted by The New Yorker, he chronicled a challenge that still plagues many colleges today: recruiting and retaining black students and faculty members. The number of black students on the campus, in Williamsburg, Va., had leveled off after years of enrollment gains, and its most recent freshman class had seen a decline. There were just three black faculty members.

“A large majority of the college’s administration voice the need for a larger black student population.”

“A large majority of the college’s administration voice the need for a larger black student population to create a more balanced institution,” Mr. Comey wrote. But there were some on the campus, he added, who did not believe the college needed to attract more black students, even though it had admitted its first African-American students fairly recently. In fact, those dissenters believed the college would be “practicing massive reverse discrimination” by making diversity a priority.

Mr. Comey cited Vernon H. Edmonds, a professor of sociology, to offer that counterpoint. “Edmonds sees reverse discrimination at William and Mary in the form of enrolled blacks who he contends would not be at William and Mary if they were white, and are actually taking the places of qualified white students,” he wrote. “He feels that faculty members are inconsistent in their protest of athletic admissions and their acceptance of minority admissions.”

The response was swift.

Over the next few weeks, several members of the sociology department, and others on the campus, took to the paper en masse to distance themselves from their colleague’s remarks to Mr. Comey. Students, faculty members, and administrators said they were disturbed by the professor’s comments. Some were also upset with Mr. Comey’s decision to give Mr. Edmonds’s controversial view such prominence.

“He displayed a callous and probably erroneous view of the black students at the college.”

A week after the first article was published, Santoshi Oh, an associate professor of sociology, wrote that Mr. Edmonds had been “incautious in presenting interpretations of a complex, emotion-laden topic, he badly misrepresented the major substantive concerns of the discipline, and he displayed a callous and probably erroneous view of the black students at the college.”

Another week passed, and more letters flowed in. “Jim Comey, staff writer, ought not to compete with the National Enquirer,” said Victor Liguori, an associate professor of sociology. “Prior to setting fingers to typewriter, he should know well that Dr. Edmonds’s faulty, irresponsible analysis of that complex process called affirmative action may well reflect the dynamics of his own thinking, but not that of serious students of sociology.”

Returned Fire

But it was a staff editorial in The Flat Hat on September 19 that finally provoked a response from Mr. Edmonds. “For the sake of the whites who are here, the blacks who are here, the blacks who are not here, the state, and the nation, William and Mary needs more black students,” the editorial, which was signed with two sets of initials, read.

“If ‘the college’ follows your advice then the bottom line will be little more than that — a lot of costs.”

A week later, Mr. Edmonds returned fire. “You urge ‘the college to get a lot more black students and faculty at William and Mary at all costs.’ If ‘the college’ follows your advice then the bottom line will be little more than that — a lot of costs.” He didn’t stray from an economic argument against diversifying the student body. “Poor people in general, and poor whites in particular, are much more underrepresented in college in general, and William and Mary in particular, than are blacks,” he said.

Mr. Edmonds’s views on race dogged him later in his career at William & Mary. In 1991 he was the subject of a departmental inquiry after students accused him of making racist remarks toward black students and giving them worse grades than white students. David Lutzer, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told The New York Times that the inquiry was not about “political correctness” or academic freedom, but the professor’s teaching. (Mr. Edmonds died a year later.)

Still, Mr. Edmonds’s theories had been roundly rejected by nearly all sociologists, even at the time Mr. Comey completed his article. William & Mary’s Black Student Organization raised that point in a scathing letter about the piece. “We question the need for the discussion of a genetic gap when his fellow social scientists cannot agree on the validity and the accuracy of the extensive research for the series,” the group wrote. “We hope you will re-examine your own stance and correct these shortcomings.”

Only then did Mr. Comey break his silence.

“The intention of the series was not to draw conclusions, but to present the facts.”

“As the author of the recent Flat Hat series on blacks at William and Mary, I feel that it is necessary for me to publicly respond to various accusations about my work in the Black Student Organization’s letter,” he wrote. “I do not agree with Professor Edmonds’ views. They are intelligently presented by him, however, and are crucial to the issue of affirmative action. Such opinions, though they are in an extreme minority at the college, do exist and must be presented in any balanced piece. I do, however [sic], that the undue emphasis on such views in the article layout was unfortunate.” He also called the Black Student Organization’s accusations “unfounded.”

Mr. Comey explained in his letter — in a voice that senators on Capitol Hill might recognize — what he believed to be his duty to objectivity and even-handed presentation. “The purpose of the series, like that of any news analysis, was to research and present the subject matter in an objective, balanced way. The intention of the series was not to draw conclusions, but to present the facts,” Mr. Comey said.

“Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions.”

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.

Clarification (6/8/2017, 4:51 p.m.): This article has been updated to include a link to The New Yorker, which first noted Mr. Comey’s series.

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