VMI Women Reach End of Rat Line
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 1998; Page A01
LEXINGTON, Va., March 16Six months of punishment gave way to joy today on a steep, red clay hill on the grounds of Virginia Military Institute.
The 384 members of the school's first coeducational class had their faces pushed down in mud at the foot of the slope. They were screamed at one last time. Then they pushed and squirmed and clawed their way up the 30-foot hill, which had been turned to greasy muck by fire hoses.
At the top, breathless but exhilarated, the cadets fell into the congratulatory arms of the senior class, their mentors and tormentors.
In recent years, the climb up that hill has marked the end of VMI's Rat Line, the moment when the freshmen celebrate their release from a months-long ritual of abuse and intimidation.
This year's ceremony provided closure for another reason. Much to the relief of VMI officials and students, the first chapter in the military school's assimilation of women has ended without major controversy.
VMI has survived women, and 23 women have survived VMI.
The women endured the spit-filled harangues; the forced marches; the push-ups demanded on a whim, sometimes as many as 300 in a day; the nighttime workouts called "sweat parties"; and the dozens of other daily humiliations in barracks that remind freshmen that they are what they are called here: rats.
For its part, VMI's administration avoided the kind of disaster that occurred in 1996 at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., where the clothes of two of the first female cadets were set on fire. Seven of the 30 women who enrolled at VMI in August have since left the school, but none complained of harassment or unequal treatment.
"I think we have come through rather well," said VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting III. "We had a group of very determined, capable young women. We had a well-prepared student leadership. We had a good year."
Before the U.S. Supreme Court forced them to admit women, VMI officials had long insisted that such a thing was not possible -- that women could not fit into the harsh environment. They waged a six-year battle with the Justice Department to keep a female student from ever walking under the Stonewall Jackson arch.
Many of those who fought VMI over that issue said they remain suspicious of the school administration's commitment to treat women fairly and its statement that coeducation has gone smoothly.
"It would be foolhardy at this point to make any judgment about how VMI has been doing," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which is monitoring the assimilation of women. "VMI hasn't been very open in describing its practices."
Greenberger complained that VMI's required quarterly reports to a federal court in Roanoke have been skimpy. She said she expected the school to provide more information on its disciplining of female students, its integration of women in extracurricular activities and its plans to hire female professors and staff.
The Justice Department declined to comment on VMI's performance.
The freshman women were not available for interviews today but will speak to the news media Tuesday, VMI officials said.
To be sure, VMI had its share of disciplinary problems this school year. A male cadet said he was violently hazed by upperclassmen in barracks, and the incident is being investigated by state police. A female cadet was suspended for striking an upperclassman. And a male and a female cadet were disciplined for sexual contact.
But what Bunting and others had feared most -- an allegation of sexual harassment that would discredit the school's efforts to accommodate women -- did not occur.
At the same time, the core of the VMI freshman experience remained intact, several school officials, student leaders and alumni said. They said the changes caused by the presence of women -- shades on the dorm windows, jewelry policies in student handouts, skirts in the panoply of uniforms -- were mostly cosmetic.
The bar was not lowered, and women proved themselves equal to the school's unforgiving traditions, said Col. James Joyner, a 1967 VMI graduate who is commandant of cadets, a kind of dean of barracks.
"The Rat Line was more physical than 90 percent of the Rat Lines I've observed," Joyner said. "The rat mass is more militarily prepared and better-trained than others I've seen."
Bunting said it is too early to gauge the long-term effects of coeducation and noted that VMI will not be a wholly coeducational institution until women are present in all classes, from rats to seniors. Next year the school expects about 40 freshman women, and by the time this year's freshmen are seniors, Bunting said, he expects about 130 women in barracks.
"Whether we were lucky and had an exceptional pioneering group this year, I don't know," he said. "These women were tested, and they met the challenge. Will next year's group do as well? We'll see."
The year of women at VMI began tentatively. Many students thought that the first few weeks of the Rat Line were not sufficiently demanding. They complained that the administration, fearful of bad publicity, was monitoring the upperclassmen so closely that the rats were not getting the usual punishment.
The Cadet, the student newspaper, rang with enraged condemnations of the new, soft VMI.
"There was super-sensitivity," said Stephen C. Fogleman, a member of the Class of 1971 and president of the Alumni Association. "The administration was omnipresent. In the first two weeks, there were two picnics and one sweat party. [The Rat Line] wasn't measuring up."
Fogleman and a number of students, including senior class president Kevin Trujillo, said the Rat Line got harsher and eventually was as intense as in past years.
But even in today's ceremony at the hill, the administration's caution was evident, some students said. Officials did not want to hose down the area too much, fearing cases of hypothermia in the 36-degree weather. Some seniors threatened not to participate if they did not get more water, which they eventually did.
Some alumni continue to believe that VMI has become a diluted and changed experience simply because women are in barracks.
"The absolute and stark egalitarianism of the place is gone, because when you put men and women together, you are looking at your classmates for procreative purposes, if that's a nice way to put it," said Thomas Moncure Jr., 46, of Stafford, Va., a 1973 VMI graduate.
"The administration has done a marvelous job of declaring success, but I believe it's only a matter of time before VMI gets into making accommodations, if it hasn't happened already."
Indeed, Moncure argued, the school's decision not to suspend the man and woman caught having sexual contact is a stark example of slipping standards.
"But I guess," Moncure said, "if suspension is going to be the penalty for that, it will be remarkably difficult to maintain a student population at VMI" in future years.
But several VMI seniors said female rats quickly melted into the mass of freshmen, as curiosity about them and reticence toward them faded.
"After a while, you're not thinking 'female rat,' you're just thinking 'rat,' " said senior Jon Spitzer, president of the Rat Disciplinary Committee.
Despite the grim visage VMI shows the world, rats are expected to demonstrate their unity with some theatrical flair and more than a little humor. Women blended into that tradition, too.
A month ago, for example, all the rats -- led by a woman -- took off their white belts and hooked them outside the barracks to form a "98" in honor of the senior class. Then they doused the belts in a flammable liquid and tried to set them afire as they screamed for the seniors to emerge from their rooms. The fire didn't take, but Trujillo said the freshmen's spunk and unity showed him and other seniors that the rats were nearly ready to wear the black belts of a VMI class.
Graduates of the hill, members of the Class of 2001 marched proudly today into the courtyard where they had tried to burn their belts a month ago.
Trujillo stepped forward to lead a series of class cheers, or "old yells," as they call them here. Then he formally dissolved the Rat Line with the magic words: "You are released."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company