Virginia Military Institute has dismissed its top-ranking cadet for allegedly using his position to pressure freshman women for sex, and VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting III said he hopes the swift punishment will send the message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated on the Lexington campus.
Jerry Webb II, of Casper, Wyo., a rising senior who was selected to take over as regimental commander of the corps of cadets in the fall and recently was elected vice president of the school's honor court, was permanently expelled from VMI last month, days before the school's commencement exercises.
Bunting said yesterday that two freshman women came forward to report the alleged harassment in mid-May and that Webb was removed from campus two days later.
Bunting declined to say whether Webb engaged in sexual activity with the two women, but he said that "the allegation certainly was that something had happened."
VMI officials said that dating between cadets is acceptable at the school under a set of very strict guidelines but that much of the cadet corps frowns on the practice because it intrudes on the egalitarian nature of a military unit. Sexual activity between cadets is strictly forbidden in the school's barracks, and dating is not allowed between cadets of different rank.
Neither of the two women faces school disciplinary measures, Bunting said.
Webb, a mechanical engineering student, could not be reached for comment. A family member said earlier that Webb did not want to talk about his case.
School officials said yesterday that Webb's dismissal does not indicate a larger problem of sexual misconduct at VMI, calling it an isolated incident involving a single cadet.
The incident came two years after women were first admitted to VMI. Bunting said such sexual misconduct, though "upsetting," was to be expected after coeducation began in August 1997.
"I think the larger issue here for us, and for any coeducated institution, is giving the young women an absolute feeling of comfort in coming forward," Bunting said. "I don't think this sets us back, but it reminds us that we have a ways to go and that we have to take a proactive stance at working on it."
Charles Lindsey, a member of the VMI Board of Visitors, said board members plan to discuss the incident at their next meeting, in August, adding that he was not aware of the details of the dismissal. He said that he feels the matter is disconcerting but that it doesn't come as a surprise.
"Before we admitted women, we knew there would probably be incidents of these types of things," Lindsey said. "What's happened to us has happened everywhere. It's just our turn now. That's not to excuse them. But it has come to VMI, and we just have to deal with it as best we can, and the system seems to be working."
Webb was elected to the school's honor court during his sophomore year and was selected to be its vice president two weeks before he was expelled, Bunting said. His role on the honor court put him in a position of responsibility, and Bunting said such students are supposed to have the highest level of "integrity, rectitude and uprightness."
"He broke faith with his classmates and all the cadets in the corps as someone they have looked to as a moral exemplar, if not a leader," Bunting said. "He was given the most solemn responsibility that a cadet can have. To some extent, it appears he was using his connection with the court in talking to these young women. That is the most horrific part of it."
Bunting would not say how the cadet allegedly used his honor court post to harass the women.
Kelly Underwood, a rising senior who was appointed to the post of regimental commander to replace Webb, said yesterday that he was aware of the incident but that he did not want to discuss it. "There was a violation of the rules. It was dealt with. End of discussion," he said. "I really don't have an opinion about it."
The dismissal was the second case of sexual misconduct on the Lexington campus since women were allowed admission two years ago. Last year, a male and a female cadet were expelled from the school after they were discovered in a barracks room engaged in sexual activity, said Charles Steenburgh, a VMI spokesman. He said women should not be intimidated from attending VMI because of the incidents.
"Any woman who is thinking of coming to VMI should have no fear of being a target for sexual advances or sexual harassment because she is a woman at VMI," Steenburgh said. "We take the well-being of our cadets very seriously, whether they are male or female. When exceptions to that occur, we take action to deal with those promptly."
Todd Thornes, a 1985 VMI graduate and president of a Midwestern alumni association, said he was encouraged by the quick action taken by administrators in the case.
"I think it's disgusting that it would be the regimental commander who would break the rules," Thornes said. "But at VMI, the rules are what it is all about. You know what the rules are, and if you break them, you'll pay the price. Doing dumb things is no excuse."