VMI sees the light and the money

June 28, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

SURPRISINGLY, I found myself disappointed with the reaction to the Supreme Court's ruling on VMI.

Not in the ruling, per se. The ruling -- that VMI must allow women to attend -- was kind of obvious, wasn't it? Check the calendar. Women can vote now. They can smoke in public and, if particularly bold, wear skirts above the ankles.

Some women can even be on the Supreme Court.

Here's where I was disappointed, and it's nobody's fault, but I was hoping that the old boys at VMI would close up shop rather than let women in.

I was hoping they'd pack up their little anachronisms and go home.

Doesn't anyone stand on principle anymore?

At the very least, I thought that VMI -- and its benighted brother, the Citadel -- would tell the states to keep their stinking money. That they'd go private and do things the way they always did it.

At VMI, that means if they weren't sending cadets off to slaughter in the Civil War, they were sending them to the "rat line" where upperclassmen harass, humiliate and hound freshmen -- the rats -- until they either break or eventually turn into sadistic upperclassmen themselves.

It is this special bonding, so goes the argument, that makes the VMI way of life inviolate.

And it's that way of life that caused me to wonder, in my days as a Virginia taxpayer, what the hell they were doing with my tax dollars.

As it turns out, VMI is hooked on state money. The better-dead-than-coed T-shirts and save-the-males banners were just for show. VMI will take women if it must in order to stay on the dole.

The court's ruling makes perfect sense. We've come a long way even from the you've-come-a-long-way-baby days. This was a no-brainer at a time when the real military academies have successfully gone coed, if you don't count the odd woman Mid being chained to a toilet.

At VMI, though, the battle must have looked winnable. The governor of Virginia, a Republican, lined up with VMI. The lieutenant governor, a Democrat, lined up with VMI. And so on down the line. I kept waiting to see George Wallace on the college steps.

And if the court's ruling seems obvious now, it didn't seem quite that clear to the federal appeals court that, just last year, said VMI did not have to admit women. Instead, the judge said VMI could set up what was called a "leadership program" for women at Mary Baldwin, a private women's college.

This program, to quote the judges, was "substantially comparable" to the VMI experience. Don't you love that? The judges wanted to bring back that golden-oldie -- separate but equal -- as an educational standard. Thurgood Marshall must have been rolling over in his grave.

People were beginning to ask themselves whether there might be a serious argument to be made.

Of course, there wasn't.

The Supreme Court ruled, 7-1, against VMI, with Antonin Scalia, the great dissenter, casting the only no vote.

Here's the proposition. In the commonwealth of Virginia, men and women pay taxes, some of which goes to public education. And yet, the women taxpayers were excluded from attending the school for which they were paying. Not because some particular woman couldn't cut it or because she might get an infection in the trenches. What VMI argued was that all women, to paraphrase Al Campanis, lacked the necessities to make it at VMI.

The old boys at VMI knew this, I guess, intuitively.

And, besides, VMI further argued, even if women could make it, the school would have to fundamentally change for them to be included. For instance, the cadets could no longer run around naked after a shower. (Actually, anyone who's visited a college recently knows that co-education is not exactly a prescription for less nudity.)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of those women justices we were discussing earlier, said in her majority opinion that people, even women, must be judged on their individual merits.

"Generalizations about 'the way women are,' estimates of what is appropriate for MOST WOMEN, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description," Ginsburg wrote.

In other words, Ginsburg is saying, there are women who might fit in wonderfully at VMI. Maybe that's what really scares the boys at VMI. And, if you think about it, maybe it should.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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