The Virginia Military Institute, alma mater to the likes of Stonewall Jackson, George C. Marshall and a Who's Who list of powerful contemporary politicians, has been taken to court by one of its professors who says she was fired, in effect, for being a woman.
Margaret Mason Seider, a 31-year-old Spanish teacher who joined VMI's faculty in the summer of 1976, was dismissed to years later. The reason, according to the letter she received from the school's administration, was that she had not "adapted sufficiently well to VMI's unique and difficult system."
What Seider couldn't adapt to, she claims in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke earlier this month, were insults from the all-male cadet corps, obscene phone calls and an unflattering cartoon caricature in the student newspaper.
She also didn't respond well to the nickname "Hawknose" or the resultant bird calls from supposedly well-disciplined cadets, her suit contends.
While Ivy League colleges, U.S. military academies and even Navy ships have gone coeducational without incident, Seider said her presence as one of two women among 1,250 cadets and 80 male teachers was not welcomed.
"There were students of mine who told me very directly that they would not do anything a woman told them to do," Seider recalled earlier this week from her home near the 140-year-old college in Lexington, 150 miles southwest of Washington.
She said the obscene phone calls started only two weeks after she arrived on campus and moved into faculty housing with her husband.
"The cadets began switching books from their left hand to their right hand when they saw me coming so that only their left hand would be free to salute me," said Seider, who was commissioned in the state's militia as a condition of VMI employment and wore a uniform in the classroom.
She thinks her military attire probably aggravated the situation.
Their dislike for any woman in authority was great to begin with, and my being in uniform just increased the resentment against me," Seider said.
Later, she said, the student newspaper printed a three-frame cartoon that said VMI's foreight language department had unleashed "Hawknose disease" on the campus. It put Hawknose disease in a class with the plague, swine flu and Legionnaire's disease and included a caricature of Seider.
After that, she said, she could not walk across the campus alone without getting bird calls from barracks windows.
VMI has withheld all comment on Seider's suit until it files it official response early next month in Roanoke. A hearing on Seider's request to be reinstated pending the outcome of the suit will be held in Lynchburg on Aug. 6.
Seider blames the school's administration for failing to quell what she says ultimately grew into open hostility against her. She complained, thatwhile school officials warned some cadets, "no penalties were ever given out for their disrespectfulness."
Her firing, she charges, came about because the school "decided it was easier to deal with me than the real problem" of sex discrimination.
Maj. James Adams, VMI spokesman, said Seider was one of two female assistant professors at the state-supported military college, which he said also has two women instructors who work in the library. The school, however has employed only one other full-time woman faculty member who wore a uniform, and she is no longer teaching on campus.
Seider argues that the other woman professor lived off campus and therefore did not receive the same negative reception. She says the historical absence of women cadets has fostered an unhealthy attitude among the male students toward women and their right to equal opportunities. She is asking the court in her suit to order the enrollment of women.
A former Spanish teacher at the University of Virginia, Seider said she took the VMI job and moved from Charlottesville to Lexington because she wanted to stay in the area. She applied for the job after seeking a job listed in a language association magazine and was hired the same day she interviewed for the position, she said.
VMI students pay tuition fees and room and board costs totaling about $2,585 for state residents, $3,785 for non-residents.About 70 percent of the school's operating costs are paid by state government funds.