UNTIL LAST WEEK, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder had avoided one of the more hotly debated issues in the state -- whether the Virginia Military Institute should end its archaic all-male policy and finally agree to admit women. The governor's curious comments on VMI's policy, which is under a federal court challenge from the U.S. Justice Department, were that his personal views were of no significance. That stance appeared to change, however, when the judge in the case ruled that Gov. Wilder must remain a co-defendant in the case. Not unexpectedly, tacit support for VMI from the commonwealth's highest elected officials quickly crumbled.

"No person should be denied admittance to a school supported by state funds solely because of his or her race or gender," Gov. Wilder pronounced. Moreover, the governor announced: (a) his willingness to testify against the school's single sex policy in open court; (b) his support of state legislation that would force VMI to admit women; and (c) his willingness to impound the $11 million in state aid the school receives annually, as well as state money intended for VMI's legal defense.

State Attorney General Mary Sue Terry had also been placed in an interesting position by the VMI lawsuit, representing the school in the case and arguing that the state offers so many other educational opportunities to women that they were not hurt by VMI's intransigence. Now, the attorney general says, "I will work in concert with the governor." Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. soon chimed in, saying he too favored the admission of women to VMI and had only been silent on the subject "out of courtesy for the governor."

In truth, the rather huge amount of state aid received annually by VMI (40 percent of its budget), not to mention the fact that it is state-owned and state-operated, has always meant that the Wilder administration's feelings on this matter were of great significance. Should Virginia taxpayers continue to foot such a bill if VMI is unwilling to step, however reluctantly, into the 20th century? The answer, we think, is no. If VMI insists upon denying admission to women, let it do so and defend itself entirely on its own without state aid.