RICHMOND, NOV. 19 -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, ending almost two years of silence on one of Virginia's most divisive issues, will endorse the admission of women into the all-male Virginia Military Institute, sources said tonight.
Wilder, pressured between conservative supporters of the academy and a federal government lawsuit alleging that the taxpayer-supported school at Lexington, Va., discriminates against women, will respond to the controversy at a 9 a.m. news conference Tuesday, according to a statement released by his office.
In his meeting with reporters, sources said, Wilder is expected to declare that women should be allowed into VMI -- a position he steadfastly refused to take all through his campaign for governor last year and during his first 10 months in office.
It was unclear tonight what Wilder is prepared to do to pressure VMI's board of trustees into admitting women or how his expected statement will affect a pending lawsuit by the Justice Department's civil rights division that is designed to force the admission of women. Wilder is named as a codefendant in the suit, along with VMI.
Wilder, at a trade conference in Charleston, S.C., could not be reached for comment. His press secretary, Laura Dillard, declined to comment.
Richard Cullen, an attorney representing a private foundation that supports VMI and its single-sex admissions policy, declined to comment until he sees Wilder's full statement.
VMI supporters said they hoped Wilder would merely express his personal preference about the school's admissions -- a stance that his predecessor, fellow Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, took -- rather than take more direct action, such as attempting to join the federal lawsuit as a co-plaintiff or backing legislation in the General Assembly against VMI's all-male policy.
U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser, who is presiding in the case in Roanoke, earlier this month rejected the governor's request that he be removed as a defendant in the case.
Wilder's attorneys argued that VMI's admissions policy is not set by the governor, but the judge countered that Wilder can exercise broad authority over the school by appointing its trustees and signing the state budget, which gives millions of dollars in operating funds to the school each year.
Last week, Wilder -- the nation's first elected black governor -- criticized President Bush for refusing to "provide the needed moral leadership" on racial issues.
Critics accused the governor, who is widely believed to have ambitions for national office, of ducking invitations to show leadership by stating his views on VMI as well as on race.
In reply, Wilder hinted that he would clarify his position soon.
Wilder's endorsement of admitting women would put added pressure on Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who as the state government's legal officer is representing VMI.
Terry declined to comment through Bert Rohrer, her spokesman.
Terry, the first woman to be elected to statewide office in Virginia, has said she has a legal obligation to defend VMI regardless of her own views about its admissions policy, which she has never stated.