Virginia Military Institute has expelled the president of its student-run Honor Court for his role in a mass protest against the administration, a move that is sparking controversy among the Lexington college's tight network of alumni and supporters.
Shawn Joyce, 21, of Stafford, was accused of abusing his powers by announcing that he would refuse to prosecute certain kinds of disciplinary cases during a dispute with school administrators over what many students considered the unfair punishment of several seniors.
Although Joyce was not involved in the matter that triggered the protest -- the alleged mistreatment of freshmen in VMI's storied "rat line" -- he is the only cadet to be thrown out during the initial crackdown or the subsequent protest whose expulsion was upheld.
Several alumni and parents, saying the school's leadership overreacted to Joyce's act of protest, are demanding more information about the case and circulating petitions to get him reinstated at the state-supported school.
"We believe there was nothing dishonorable about what he did," said a local alumnus, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
VMI officials declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality laws that shroud student disciplinary records.
Joyce was a leader in one of the most contentious student protests at VMI in years. It centered on the rat line, the school's traditional physical and mental training regimen for freshmen. School officials accused several seniors last month of pushing freshmen too hard, causing numerous injuries and resignations. A few seniors were suspended or dismissed.
But cadet leaders complained that the punishments were too harsh and that the administration had usurped students' treasured self-governance. They organized a schoolwide protest -- known as a "step off" -- in which they suspended the operations of the rat line. Hundreds of cadets also refused to march in a scheduled parade.
As president of the Honor Court, Joyce was the senior in charge of upholding the honor code, under which students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal. He got involved in the protest because administrators, he says, subverted the honor code: Although college officials accused the punished cadets of lying or "quibbling" about the rat line abuse, those officials never brought those charges to the Honor Court.
"If there's an honor violation . . . we're supposed to investigate," Joyce said.
Joyce then declared that the Honor Court would refuse to prosecute cadets for two categories of honor charges often filed by administrators: those against student monitors who fail to report misbehavior they witness, and those against cadets who fail to turn themselves in for missing curfew.
Joyce said his decree was largely symbolic: No such cases were reported to the Honor Court during the six-day step off, and the Honor Court carried out all its work. The goal, he said, was to force administrators to "prove that they, too, would abide by the honor system."
VMI spokesman Chuck Steenburgh denied any subversion of the honor code. He said that although officials may have informally complained about seniors who lied, the administration did not discipline anyone for lying.
Joyce said he was suspended Sept. 14 for abusing his powers. After the six-day standoff, officials agreed to reduce penalties against several students, reinstating two they had originally kicked out. But on Oct. 1, a disciplinary panel voted to dismiss Joyce.
Ana Joyce, his mother, has rallied support from other parents and alumni who say they are baffled that VMI would expel a cadet of Joyce's rank. Many attended VMI's Parents Weekend events Saturday seeking to share their concerns with Superintendent Josiah Bunting III. One alumnus, who spoke on condition his name not be used, said Joyce should have been allowed to have a lawyer or an older alumnus represent him before the disciplinary panel.
"We're just not sure the punishment fit the crime," he said.
Susan Jean Rostorfer, the mother of a sophomore from Ohio, said that cadets take pride in a culture that allows them to run the rat line and the honor system but that the administration turned it into "a sham."
"If you don't give them some kind of self-government, you're not developing their leadership skills," she said.