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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.

VMI officials say they are cooperating. They also created separate physical standards for women in the past school year, allowing female cadets to pass the fitness test with a single pull-up.

Peay said the change was not a response to the federal probe but part of VMI's larger evolution. Women wear their hair longer, too, and can be more easily distinguished from the men in their bulky uniforms.

Peay has set up more training for first-class, or senior, cadets, who exercise such complete control over rats that only two adults watch the barracks at night. Years ago, upper-class cadets too often lapsed into bullying and unjustified abuse. Today, the rat line is more professional, and attrition is down.

"My company, we lost maybe 15 to 18 people when we were rats," said Mitchell Gardner, a senior from Hauppauge, N.Y. "Me, I've kept it down to two or three."

The general has set an institutional goal of 200 female cadets, up from about 126 this fall. Even with the progress, it could prove a difficult goal to reach because VMI loses women to attrition at about twice the rate of men.

Briana Hogan of Beverly, Mass., is a rat. Two months into the school year, some of her best friends are already gone. She is still there.

The bellowing, the sweat parties, the endless push-ups of August were, "more than anything, a head game," she said. "It's all mental."


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