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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.

The academic buildings have air conditioning. A new barracks and a conference and leadership center anchor a $235 million construction plan. The acceptance rate for freshmen was 54 percent this fall, compared with 74 percent in 1999. The freshman grade-point average has risen to 3.4 from 3.1. VMI's selectivity is improving relative to other schools: It ranks 62nd among U.S. liberal arts colleges in the latest annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, its strongest showing to date.

The rate of student attrition -- at a school that assigns push-ups by the hundreds -- hovers around 18 percent, down from the low 20s a decade ago. A new honors program yielded one of the nation's 32 Rhodes scholars last year, the second this decade for VMI. VMI exists to produce a time-honored product, the citizen soldier: capable, loyal, honest. The institute prepares cadets for leadership in any branch of the military or in civilian life. Fifty-six percent of graduates accept military commissions, up from 35 percent a decade ago, signaling progress on another of Peay's initiatives.

The institute's methods are unique and, after 170 years, increasingly out of sync with the world beyond the post.

Entering freshmen pay $18,000 in tuition and fees (twice that if they are not Virginians) for the privilege of being broken and rebuilt. In the process, cadets learn to work together and form a lifetime bond.

"No person can make it through here alone," said John Bowman, a senior from Greenback, Tenn.

Shorn, stripped of identity and dubbed rats, the lowest form of life, new cadets race through boot camp in nine days. They run up and down House Mountain, the imposing peak to the west. They have "sweat parties," calisthenics marathons supervised by senior cadets. They live without television, music or telephones and never stray from the rat line, an invisible path through the barracks. Anyone who lies, cheats or steals or even tolerates such misconduct faces expulsion.

"I didn't think I'd make it through my first two weeks," said Bryant Youngblood, a senior from Hubbard, Ohio. "They wake you up at dawn; you go out and run. My freedoms were taken away. I felt like someone had to know where I was at every single moment."

When the women arrived, the institute made few accommodations. They hung shades on barracks doors, designed skirts for formal uniforms and installed tampon machines.

But the new first-year women still were called "brother rat." And VMI's physical requirements at first did not change. All students had to manage five pull-ups, a standard only 20 percent of female cadets could meet. This was a departure from the co-education plans followed earlier by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and its Army, Air Force and Coast Guard counterparts, all of which set different standards for the sexes.

"The young lady who has an interest in this kind of lifestyle, in this type of education, there's not a lot of them out there," said Trumps, the commandant. "I'd send my son here, and I'd send my daughter here if she was tough. If she was tough."

The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation of possible sex discrimination at VMI in summer 2008 in response to an unnamed complainant, according to spokesman Jim Bradshaw. The complaint alleged "a climate and culture that is derogatory and discriminatory toward the women that are required as cadets to live in the barracks."

Investigators probed the school's policy, which prohibits cadets from marrying or having children, and rules for matters such as cadet complaints and faculty tenure, all through the lens of gender.

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