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.
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.
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."