U.S. back in court over VMI School refuses to send applications to interested women

September 11, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the all-male Virginia Military Institute still refusing to consider women for admission, the Justice Department went back to court yesterday to try to force it to do so.

VMI has started accepting applications from men for next year's class, but won't even send an application to interested women, the department complained to a federal appeals court in Richmond.

The Supreme Court decided in June that VMI must be open to women. College officials now say they will decide in 11 days whether to go co-ed, or to go private so that the school might continue to admit only men.

Federal government lawyers complained that the Lexington, Va., college was following "business as usual" tactics.

VMI immediately cried foul. "The behavior of the Justice Department is reprehensible and also insulting to the integrity of the VMI Board of Visitors and the administration of the Institute," said Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, its superintendent.

Col. Mike Strickler, VMI spokesman, said, "We really have a hard time understanding" the government's new legal maneuver, which came after informal talks about a legal solution broke down. "We have done nothing different from what we said we would do all along; nothing has changed on our calendar," he said.

Any day now, Strickler said, the VMI board will have before it two plans: one drawn up by the board itself, to open the college to women cadets and remain a state-supported institution; and a second, drawn up by alumni, weighing the costs and options for keeping women out by switching to private status -- a plan likely to cost up to $500 million.

The board will vote on one of those plans by no later than Sept. 21, the spokesman said, during a four-day, closed-door meeting on the Lexington campus.

VMI is one of only two male-only colleges, and both have been fighting for years to keep that status.

The other is the Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

VMI lost the battle for both of them when the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in June that VMI must open its cadet ranks to women. Their exclusion violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal treatment, the court said.

The Citadel dropped its male-only policy, and four women recently completed the opening "hell week" that took them into full-fledged cadet status.

VMI, however, has been weighing its options since its board meeting in mid-July.

That meeting set up the two studies that will be voted on later this month.

Strickler said yesterday that VMI began accepting males' applications for the 1997 entering class on Sept. 1.

In response to "inquiries" from 54 women, he said, VMI sent each a letter explaining that the board was still weighing what to do, and promised to send out applications and entry information if the board decided to change its policy to admit women.

Asked if VMI was turning away any women at this stage, Strickler said, "No, absolutely not."

But the Justice Department protested any further delay in treating the sexes equally.

Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick said in a statement that "right now, women in their last year of high school are making decisions about where to go to college. They deserve the same chance as men to at least apply. That's what the June decision was about."

The department's request to the courts, Patrick said, "is very modest" -- to get women on the same entry track as men, pending VMI's decision later this month on its future.

Asking for an emergency order, the department's legal papers said promptness was essential to assure that federal courts could give women "effective relief" from VMI's 157-year-old policy of excluding them.

In recent weeks, department attorneys and lawyers for the state of Virginia have engaged in extensive private negotiations, with the department asking that women get equal treatment now as applicants, or else VMI stop the application process entirely until after the future policy is settled.

VMI turned down both requests. In a letter to the Justice Department on Monday, Deputy State Attorney General William H. Hurd said that if the board votes to admit women for the fall of 1997, "all seats will be open and there will be plenty of time for interested women to receive and return their applications, and be fully considered for admission. "

Hurd called the Justice Department demands "highly unreasonable and not required in order for VMI to comply with the recent decision of the Supreme Court."

Even if VMI's leaders decide to try to take the school to private status, they would have to apply to the state legislature for the authority, would have to buy property worth at least $400 million, and would have to satisfy the courts that this was a legal end to the constitutional dispute -- obstacles that loom large as the board prepares to meet.

Pub Date: 9/11/96

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