The VMI solution

January 10, 1994|By Mona Charen

MEETING Cynthia Haldenby Tyson, president of Mary Baldwin College, is like sitting face to face with an English suffragette, circa 1900. The fierce eyes, the precise British diction, the erect posture -- all suggest a woman with a mission.

Cynthia Tyson is not chaining herself to the Buckingham Palace gate, but she seems prepared to do as much to advance her cause -- the preservation of single-sex colleges.

Tyson believes that nothing less is at stake in the current legal battle surrounding the Virginia Military Institute. An all-male, state-sponsored school, VMI was sued in 1989 by the Justice Department for violating civil rights laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed that states may not endow colleges that exclude women and ruled that VMI has four choices: admit women, go private, create a parallel program for women or design another creative option.

Enter Mary Baldwin College and Cynthia Tyson. Mary Baldwin is a picture-postcard, all-female college located about 30 minutes from VMI. The "creative option" that the Mary Baldwin and VMI faculties have designed together is a program to be based at Mary Baldwin and called the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership.

The VWIL would be a rigorous academic and athletic program that would attempt to prepare women to assume leadership positions in civilian life and in the military (Mary Baldwin has a long-standing ROTC program). "VMI doesn't know anything about educating women," says Ms. Tyson. "We do."

The VWIL would get its students up at the crack of dawn (as military academies do), it would require Outward Bound-style wilderness training to inculcate physical courage and presence of mind, it would maintain high academic standards including required courses in science, math and foreign languages, it would rely on a strict honor code, and it would include apprenticeships with successful women.

The goal? To create self-confident, skilled young women who are just as prepared to become leaders as their male counterparts at VMI.

I asked Ms. Tyson if she would consider her program a success even if some significant portion of her graduates chose to become wives and mothers instead of corporate CEOs, astronauts or leading educators. "Yes," she replied (with a moment's hesitation). "I think women can have it all, but perhaps not all at the same time. There are stages in life, and devoting oneself to family and domestic concerns for a time, later to pursue other goals, is not a failure at all."

Advocates for single-sex education have reason to worry about what happens to VMI. While it is clearly unfair for a state like Virginia to spend tax dollars to educate young men at VMI without a comparable program for young women, it is also true that the pell-mell rush to coeducation as the only answer will endanger valuable institutions with long track records.

As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, professor of the humanities at Emory University and a supporter of the Mary Baldwin plan, put it, there is a paradox in the Justice Department's position. For if VMI is forced to go coed to accommodate the one in 1,000 girls who might wish to attend, then the option to attend single-sex colleges must be foreclosed for the thousands of girls who prefer it. Practically all colleges, or their students, receive some form of federal assistance and so could be considered in violation of civil rights laws if the Department of Justice wanted to get really frisky.

Cynthia Tyson's claim that women's colleges know how to create leaders is no empty boast. Forty-two percent of the women members of Congress are graduates of women's schools, though such colleges account for only 6 percent of the nation's undergraduate population.

Graduates of women's colleges are more than twice as likely to receive doctoral degrees as women graduates of coeducational schools.

If the existence of VMI is an affront to fairness, then by all means, fund a truly comparable program for women. The alternative -- coercive coeducation -- would be a bow to fashion at the expense of excellence.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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