Last All-Male Bastion Faces Its Own 'D-Day'

Virginia school must admit women - or go private

The Virginia Military Institute - America's last all-male state-supported college - will announce tomorrow whether it will turn private or take down the "no females allowed" sign.

The decision comes almost three months after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the military college could not exclude women and remain state supported. In response, VMI's governing board in July ordered administrators to develop a plan for enrolling women, while also giving alumni groups until this weekend to present a strategy for taking the college private.

If VMI goes coeducational, which many expect it to do, women for the first time will have access to all US public colleges. Compliance with the Supreme Court ruling would end a long chapter in a fierce battle not just in Virginia but in South Carolina as well. There, The Citadel, the only other public all-male college, last year lost a bitter court fight against admitting its first female cadet, Shannon Faulkner, who later dropped out. This summer the Charleston school announced it would open its doors to women, and four are now enrolled.

VMI's other option is to turn itself into a private all-male institution, an alternative that is unlikely because of the high cost. The college would have to find a way to make up for the money it annually receives from the state ($10.3 million this year), as well as pay for the state-owned buildings and property, a sum estimated to total several hundred million dollars.

"It's something that would be difficult but ... not impossible," acknowledges Col. Mike Strickler, VMI spokesman. "Our alumni are extremely generous. We rank No. 1 in the country by far in endowment per capita among state public colleges. But still, there's a limit to what you can do."

SINCE the Supreme Court decision, 80 women have inquired about attending VMI, Colonel Strickler says. The school has not sent out applications, however, and that led the US Justice Department last week to file an injunction with the Fourth Circuit Court to force VMI to do so. The court has not acted yet. "They're probably waiting to see what we'll do this weekend," Strickler says. As for the 80 women, "we've sent them letters and told them that we will send them further information once the board has acted."

The policy of not admitting women to state-supported, all-male colleges has denied them equal opportunity and a fair chance to succeed, some say. The arguments that "the environment is just too tough for women, that they just can't succeed there, that they'll bring the quality of the program down ... has just never been the case in history" in any institution or profession, says Deborah Brake, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "Anytime we've added women, we've all benefited, and I think the same will happen at VMI."

Still, the majority of VMI cadets want the 1,200-student campus to stick to tradition, Strickler says. "For 157 years, we've had a system that's worked extremely well in a single-sex environment," he says. "There's certainly women who could make it in the VMI system, but we think that a state should have the right to provide a diversity of options to its students, and VMI is one of those options."

If the college admits women, which would likely be for the 1997 fall term, female cadets, like their male counterparts, would undergo rigorous physical demands.

Known as Rats, they'll live in a spartan atmosphere, be expected to answer on demand questions about the school, and walk an imaginary straight line in the barracks called the "Rat Line."

If the first-year cadets fail to comply with these rules, they may be sentenced to a number of push-ups, or other disciplinary action by upper classmen. "We plan to change very little about VMI," Strickler says.

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