When Do Single-Sex Schools Foster Diversity?

GEORGE F. WILL

February 01, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Lexington, Va. -- The last time the federal government tangled with Virginia Military Institute the government's forces got cuffed around at the battle of New Market by a Confederate contingent leavened by 247 VMI cadets ages 15 to 17. This event is celebrated in a large painting in VMI's chapel, Jackson Memorial Hall, which is named after Stonewall, who for 10 years taught ''natural philosophy,'' meaning science, and artillery here.

Today the federal government, which always has been a slow learner, is engaged in an utterly optional fight with VMI. This time, unlike last time, it would serve the national interest for the national government to lose.

Founded in 1839, VMI is one of this state's 15 publicly supported colleges and universities. Although its most distinguished graduate was a military man -- George Marshall -- most graduates pursue civilian careers. However, all its graduates are men and this, given the Zeitgeist, is the rub.

VMI's enrollment is just 1,300 of the 160,000 students -- a majority of them female -- in Virginia's state-supported, four-year institutions. But in March 1990, the inscrutable Bush administration's Justice Department, egged on by the American Civil Liberties Union and kindred spirits, filed a suit charging that VMI's single-sex admission policy violates the constitutional guarantee (in the 14th Amendment) of ''equal protection of the laws.''

The district court had to decide whether VMI's policy is ''substantially related'' to the achievement of ''important government objectives.'' The court ruled that the six-day trial had produced a record ''replete'' with convincing testimony that single-sex undergraduate education can be beneficial to both males and females. It also held that VMI's ''adversative'' educational system would be ''fundamentally altered'' and its distinctive ends ''thwarted'' if VMI were forced to accommodate the needs and interests of women.

The ''adversative'' system strives to mold and motivate students by stressing (in the court's words) ''physical rigor, mental stress, absolute equality of treatment, absence of privacy, minute regulation of behavior, and indoctrination in desirable values.'' First-year cadets are called ''rats'' because the rat is considered ''the lowest animal on earth.'' This system is, the court found, well-tailored to the developmental characteristics of some adolescent males.

The court also noted the incoherence of the attack on VMI: Giving women access to this unique system would necessarily alter the system fundamentally. Nevertheless, the Justice Department, inflamed by the court's conclusion that VMI's system is ''pedagogically justified,'' appealed the ruling to a higher court. There VMI won what might be a ruinous victory.

A three-judge panel unanimously agreed that VMI's system is appropriate and successful and justifies its admissions policy. But the judges, while adhering to the principle that the 14th Amendment does not per se proscribe single-sex education, also held that VMI's all-male policy is an unconstitutional denial of ''equal protection'' unless and until Virginia either stops supporting VMI or provides an identical program for females.

The court did not explain how to square this circle: What is, for females, identical to a system suited only for adolescent males? (By the way, women so inclined can participate in the corps of cadets at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.)

Now VMI is asking the Supreme Court to review this ruling which, if allowed to stand, will sow uncertainty, and hence litigation, about such questions as:

Can a public school operate a single-sex sports team -- say, a football team -- without providing an identical opportunity for the other sex to participate in the same sport?

Can Virginia continue to give substantial state assistance, through tuition subsidy programs, to five private women's colleges as long as there are not comparable and comparably assisted men's colleges?

Can government provide facilities for one sex (for example, for battered wives) merely because the policy is based on actual differences between the needs of the sexes?

Are state-run ''boot camp'' penal programs for young men impermissible unless there are identical programs for young women?

Court-created confusion is particularly unfortunate regarding permissible educational policies. A 30-year rush to coeducation has radically reduced the number of single-sex educational opportunities. But much recent research suggests that single-sex education can be helpful for some young people in some settings (such as inner city adolescent males). Fear of litigation will inhibit potentially useful experimentation.

Notice that in the name of expanding ''diversity'' and enlarging freedom, governmental coercion is being employed to make schools more alike, by snuffing out VMI's nonconformity. Although the Bush administration participated in this bullying, VMI should expect no better from the new crowd.

VMI's corps of cadets marched in President Truman's 1949 inaugural parade and in all but two of the next 10. (It was invited both of those times, but one parade fell during exam week, and the other would not have included the entire corps so VMI declined.) VMI was not invited to participate in President Clinton's parade and it is permissible to suspect that the reason was VMI's deviation from political correctness.

When Clinton's parade had passed, his administration buckled down to the pressing business of opening the military to gays and lesbians. The issue, his administration says, is tolerance of diversity.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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