VMI will admit women School panel votes to end 157 years of all-male policy

Still public, but coed

Board's 9-8 decision reflects uncertainty over the action

September 22, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Short on legal options and unsure about its financial future, the Virginia Military Institute marched reluctantly away from 157 years of tradition as it agreed yesterday to open its cadet ranks to women next year.

Facing a new court order to obey the Constitution's demand for equality and ending weeks of internal debate over its future, VMI's Board of Visitors split 9-8 in voting to remain a public college but to go coed.

VMI Superintendent Josiah M. Bunting III said the college would make "absolutely minimal" changes to accommodate women, but would take steps to assure their personal privacy in the barracks.

"Female cadets will be treated precisely as we treat male cadets," he said, and that includes the rigorous program of "mental stress, physical rigor" and "minute regulation of behavior" that has made famous the hard life of "brother rats" at the Lexington, Va., college.

Bunting added: "Fully qualified women would themselves feel demeaned by any relaxation in the standards the VMI system imposes on young men."

Four women were accepted this fall into the cadet ranks of The Citadel, formerly the nation's only other single-sex public military college, after completing "hell week" in August at the Charleston, S.C., institution.

The Citadel dropped its men-only policy in late June, two days after the Supreme Court ruled against VMI's exclusion of women. The 154-year-old Citadel has followed the same tightly disciplined program as VMI and, like VMI, had spent years defending its admission policy in court.

The VMI decision to admit women with only one vote to spare followed an identical 9-8 vote to reject a plan drafted by alumni to take measures -- surrounded by difficulty -- to become a private institution in the hope that it could continue to keep women out.

The board acted after giving VMI alumni a last chance to plead -- as they did, fervently, on Friday -- to maintain the men-only tradition that began with the college's founding in 1839.

The closeness of the vote by the board, made up mostly of VMI alumni, reflected the uncertainty that had prevailed for the past 12 weeks among VMI officials and alumni about how to react to the Supreme Court ruling that the state-run, state-financed college could not remain a single-sex institution.

Although a number of alumni promised at a public hearing in Lexington on Friday to step up their donations to VMI, the board faced the daunting prospect of raising perhaps $400 million in new funds to cover the cost of going private.

It also faced the likelihood of having to raise its tuition significantly without public financial aid.

If the board had chosen to go private, it would have had to gain the approval of the Virginia legislature, the governor and a federal judge. Even with that approval, VMI probably would have faced a new legal challenge.

Already, VMI's alumni have spent an estimated $14 million on legal costs in their unsuccessful six-year effort to defend in court the men-only policy.

At the U.S. Justice Department, Assistant Attorney General Deval L. Patrick praised the action and offered to "work with school officials to ensure that women are successfully integrated into VMI."

After the Board of Visitors' vote yesterday, college officials planned to notify immediately some 80 young women who have expressed an interest in going to VMI that they may send in applications to enter the cadet corps in fall 1997. VMI already was allowing men to apply for next year's entering class.

Board President William W. Berry, a retired Richmond utility executive and a VMI graduate, rejected reports that VMI leaders were deeply divided over its future.

He said there were "honest differences," and added: "I am confident that our family will stand united."

The board's action came two days after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., moved to enforce the Supreme Court decision. The appeals court, at the Justice Department's request, ordered VMI to "implement a plan" that would satisfy the Constitution's guarantee of legal equality and the Supreme Court's edict.

In recent weeks, the Lexington college's leaders and alumni had been under rising pressure from the Justice Department, from high-level state officials and from women's rights groups to end its policy of exclusion.

Berry praised the board yesterday for maintaining "civility in the face of strong pressure."

The legal saga that ultimately overwhelmed VMI's single-sex tradition began in 1990, when the Justice Department in the Bush administration sued VMI at the request of an anonymous young woman who wanted to be considered for admission there.

VMI had never accepted an application from a female and was continuing to follow that policy as recently as last week.

Marcia D. Greenberger, head of the National Women's Law Center in Washington and a key legal strategist in the lengthy court battle against VMI, said yesterday that she was "confident that VMI will look back with the assurance" that yesterday's vote "was the right choice to make."

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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