Academic Progress, a Slow Cultural Shift at 170-Year-Old VMI

In 1997, a Supreme Court ruling forced Virginia Military Institute, the last all-male school in the country, to admit women. Though rigid initially and still dealing with legal challenges, the public school is making efforts to be more accommodating and improve retention rates and academic standards.
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

LEXINGTON, Va. -- Freshmen at Virginia Military Institute are called rats. And on this morning, they are up before the sun. One by one, they emerge through a stone archway beneath the gothic parapets of their barracks, salute a statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, fall into columns by height and march east to the mess hall for a breakfast of bacon, eggs and bellowing.

Inside, first-year cadets sit as straight as their chair backs and speak only in loud formalities: "BROTHER RAT, PLEASE PASS THE SALT." The slightest lapse can unleash a torrent of verbal abuse from an upper-class cadet.

That is the VMI way. But leaders of Virginia's state-funded military school are learning whether a school steeped in the past can adjust to modern sensibilities, including the challenges of incorporating women into a warrior culture developed in the days when all brother rats were, in fact, men.

VMI was the last all-male public college in the nation when, in 1997, it began admitting women at the demand of the U.S. Supreme Court. Former superintendent Josiah Bunting III declared himself "savagely disappointed" at the ruling. Cadets had worn T-shirts that read "Better Dead Than Co-Ed."

But what has followed, the school's current leaders say, is unexpected academic progress. Admission decisions are more selective than a decade ago. SAT scores are up. A rejuvenated faculty is building a national reputation for undergraduate research.

The cultural shifts have proved more difficult. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department began investigating whether VMI's environment is especially hostile to women. Allegations of sexual assault have become a fact of VMI life, occurring about once a year, typical for a school of this size, according to college officials. The first case to result in a criminal charge ended Tuesday.

In that case, a female cadet alleged that Stephen J. Lloyd, then a senior from Mason Neck, Va., pulled her into a storage room the night of March 27 and raped her. Lloyd no longer attends VMI. On Tuesday, he entered an Alford plea, which means he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that there is enough evidence to convict him. The plea is tantamount to a conviction of misdemeanor sexual battery.

The sentence: a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, suspended.

Although the incident is a setback for VMI, the response might represent progress for the institute, said Judy Casteele, executive director of Project Horizon, a Lexington crisis intervention agency that trains VMI cadets and administrators to deal with sexual assault. "I think the fact that women feel safe enough to come forward is a really big deal."

Amid the changes, spartan traditions have endured since 1839. Rats still sleep on wooden bed frames in barracks that lack air conditioning. Cadets wear the same wool overcoats with split tails for horseback riding. They hew to the same old-school disciplinary model, which rewards no good deed but punishes every failure. They muster for the same reveille at 0700 and march into the morning sun.

"Outsiders ask, 'Why don't you just let them walk down and get breakfast?' " said Col. Thomas Trumps, the chiseled commandant who leads the daily military regimen. "We could. But then it wouldn't be VMI."

For such a tradition-bound place, VMI and its 1,500 cadets are witnessing unprecedented flux. Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, the school's superintendent since 2003, is leading a reinvention of the institute, called Vision 2039. With typical battle-plan zeal, Peay is pursuing 190 separate objectives.

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