EVEN with elite schools and military academies opening their doors to women in the last 30 years, tradition still reigns at the state-funded Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Va., and the Citadel in Charleston, S.C. With both schools embroiled in court battles to remain all-male, VMI is making a unique effort to avoid admitting women by establishing an all-female leadership program with Mary Baldwin College, a nearby women's school.
For supporters of the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), the case represents a sort of last hope. If the courts rule that the plan doesn't allow equal educational opportunity for women, it could mark the end of VMI and the Citadel, the last two public schools of their kind in the country.
It could also signal the end of all single-sex education, which would be a dire development for diversity in education, says Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an expert on educating women.
Opponents of the plan say it is a rehashing of ``separate but equal'' arguments, with the results being anything but equal. The development of VWIL leaves the United States Justice Department and women's rights groups incredulous, saying the program in no way compares with a VMI education.
``The Mary Baldwin program is not a question of educational merit,'' says Ellen Vargyas of the National Women's Law Center. ``Does the [Mary Baldwin] program offer young women what [VMI] offers young men? The answer is a resounding no.''
VWIL would offer training with VMI cadets for young women as well as eight semesters of physical education and strict academic requirements. ``It will be the optimum environment for leadership formation and experiential challenges,'' says Cynthia Tyson, president of Mary Baldwin College.
Critics say the program lacks components such as VMI's powerful alumni network, a large endowment, and stringent military discipline. ``The program lacks the rigor, discipline, and physical and mental hardships, based on stereotypes that women are frail, weak little creatures and simply can't stand up to it,'' says John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and one of the initial complainants in the Citadel case.
The Justice Department argues that such stereotypes are ``meritless.'' Yet US District Judge Jackson Kiser ruled April 30 that VMI need not admit women. He wrote that the educational outcome for VWIL students would be the same as VMI's even if VWIL's method were not the same.
VMI and Mary Baldwin College are waiting for the Justice Department's appeal of the case to the Fourth Circuit Court, scheduled for July 12. VMI's lawyers expect oral arguments to be heard in Richmond, Va., in September.
Meanwhile, the Citadel has submitted a proposal to admit Shannon Faulkner. US District Judge C. Weston Houck required such proposals from both sides in case he decides to rule against the school.
The Citadel's proposal stipulates that Ms. Faulkner would have to get a crew cut and wait one year while private barracks are built for her to attend the school. As a response, she filed suit on Tuesday, claiming such measures constituted sex discrimination. Faulkner, who was accepted to the school and then rejected when administrators learned her gender, is currently taking classes at the Citadel and waiting for a decision.
Although single-sex schools are fading from higher US education, with only 83 women's and a handful of men's colleges remaining, privately funded schools can choose whether they want to go coed.
Under Title IX federal legislation, however, state-funded schools like VMI and the Citadel must admit both sexes unless the school can justify such discrimination. VMI justifies denying admission to women on grounds that admitting them would change everything that makes the school successful. Team-building through physically and mentally demanding schedules would be impossible if women were present, supporters say.
Many advocates of women's college argue that the case threatens all single-sex schools, even private ones, if their students receive any federal money. But Ms. Vargyas says Title IX does not cover private schools no matter how they get their money.
VMI would pay Mary Baldwin College $6.9 million a year to run VWIL and has already paid the women's college $150,000 in development funds. Ms. Tyson says Mary Baldwin will go through with its plan, even if VMI must admit women. Dr. Genovese argues that women need a program like VWIL because VMI's military environment, including an intentional lack of privacy and such practices as the ``rat line,'' where all freshmen must always walk along a certain line, do not help women learn.
Judge Kiser writes in his opinion that VMI's educational method ``would be wholly inappropriate for educating and training women for leadership roles'' because of its ``adversative'' nature.
This line of reasoning is specious, says Sara Mandelbaum of the American Civil Liberties Union. ``Women thrive at the service academies,'' she said.
Col. Patrick Toffler, director of policy planning at the Army's West Point Academy, agrees. The admission of women into the service academies, he says is ``a great, untold success story.''