Reforming a Culture

Last September, as first-year students at The Citadel picked up their cadet handbooks and duty uniforms, the father of a cadet, referring to the school's new policy of admitting women, said: "If any place can make it work, this place can."

But, so far, The Citadel has not made it work. Last June, after a three-year court fight, The Citadel voted to drop its 153-year-old all-male admissions policy, and in September four women were the first to be admitted to the corps of cadets. Now two of the four - Jeanie Mentavlos and Kim Messer - have announced they won't return for spring semester. They say "sadistic, illegal hazing" is the reason.

The FBI and state police are investigating charges against two seniors, who have been suspended, and nine others, who face disciplinary action. Among the charges: washing the women's mouths out with cleanser, forcing them to sing obscene songs, setting their clothing on fire, and touching them in a sexual manner.

The acting president of The Citadel, Gen. Clifton Poole, acknowledged that the school's antihazing system "broke down" and promised a new policy will be put in place: All reported incidents of hazing will be forwarded to law-enforcement agencies, and any cadet accused of harassing female classmates will be thrown off campus while the charges are investigated. Until now, The Citadel has investigated incidents but turned over the reports only if an individual wanted to pursue criminal charges.

General Poole insisted that the alleged incidents of harassment were the acts of a few individuals and not a systemic reaction to the presence of women on campus. Yet in their statements both women said The Citadel was run on an unofficial code of silence, which condones abuse, despite its official code of conduct.

E. Paul Gibson, the lawyer for Ms. Messer, has rightly questioned how the administration could not have known that serious problems existed when so much of the humiliation the women suffered was public. Mr. Gibson also is right to say The Citadel will have to work as hard at making coeducation work as it did at keeping women out. The message the school sent to male students during its three-year court battle against the admission of women won't be easy to erase.

The first step will be to see that the women's charges are fully investigated and that those held responsible are prosecuted. The next step will be for the administration to take responsibility for its own actions - or lack thereof - and start the long process of reforming a culture that still clings to its all-male traditions. The Citadel may have admitted women last fall, but it hasn't yet accepted them.

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