A deeply divided Board of Visitors of Virginia Military Institute, forced to act by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, voted today to end 157 years as an all-male academy and to admit women beginning with the 1997 school term. The vote was 9 to 8.

By the same vote, the board rejected a proposal, widely supported by the school's alumni, to keep women out by giving up the school's state support and becoming a private institution.

Board Chairman William W. Berry, a 1954 graduate of VMI and a retired Richmond utility executive, said admissions information will be sent immediately to about 80 young women who have inquired about enrolling.

"This is not a decision that we made easily," Berry said, "but we shall welcome the women who come here ready to meet the rigorous challenges that produce the nation's finest citizen soldiers." The VMI experience for women will be much the same as it has been for men, school officials promised. Female cadets will get crew cuts, will endure the taunts and face-to-face inquisitions from upperclassmen as they stand on the fabled "Rat Line," and will live in barracks altered only by the addition of curtains and single-sex bathrooms.

Today's action signals the end of state-supported single-sex college education in the United States and leaves the country without a male-only military college. For Virginia, it is a fundamental change in an institution cherished by some as a bastion of male tradition and a symbol of the state's military heritage. {Related story, Page A9.}

Starting next year, the nation's only remaining all-male colleges will be three private ones: Hampden-Sydney, in Virginia; Wabash, in Indiana; and Morehouse, in Georgia.

Last month, the country's only other state-supported all-male military college, the Citadel, in South Carolina, enrolled four women in its first-year class. The federal military schools at Annapolis, West Point and Colorado Springs admitted women 20 years ago.

Reaction among VMI cadets to today's decision was muted.

Senior Brian Bagwan, 22, of New York City, the corps' highest ranking cadet, said, "If we can weather the Civil War, we can weather this."

"The board faced two equally difficult choices," added senior Jim Wrenn, 21, of Oxford, N.C., because "the Supreme Court's illiberality took away the best choice" of remaining all-male.

The president of VMI's alumni association, Alexandria lawyer Stephen C. Fogleman, called the decision "a severe disappointment" but said that taking the school private wasn't financially feasible.

Because there were so many variables -- including how much money the state would seek if it were willing to sell the campus to a private group -- the alumni asked the board to give them another year to negotiate with the state. The board rejected that motion.

Despite the decision, Berry said, there was "no question that 100 percent of the board would have preferred keeping the school all-male and state-supported."

Trustee Anita K. Blair, an Arlington lawyer who voted against coeducation, painted a gloomy picture of VMI's future.

"Without a distinctive, attractive educational niche, VMI, a small school with limited offerings in close proximity to three major state universities, will lose its ability to compete for students," Blair said. "A coed VMI soon will become indistinguishable from the existing cadet programs at Virginia Tech and elsewhere."

Virginia's advocates of equal rights for women lauded the announcement and pledged to make sure that VMI lives up to its new commitments.

"Today {VMI} entered the 20th century, and now it can do a quick turnaround to get ready for the 21st century," said state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "We will be watching them very closely to see it works for the women who enter."

Gov. George Allen (R), who had urged VMI to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, also praised the board: "VMI was not afraid to defend its successful and proven tradition of single-gender education, and neither is it afraid to enter into a new era of coeducation."

The beginning of the end of VMI's all-male status occurred more than seven years ago, when the Justice Department said it received a complaint from a never-identified female high school student from Northern Virginia who said she had been denied an application to VMI, which gets about one-third of its annual budget from state taxpayers. On Jan. 30, 1990, the Justice Department notified then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder that VMI's male-only policy violated the U.S. Constitution and the federal Civil Rights Act.

From that day until today, VMI fought to retain its all-male status, although the end seemingly was ordained June 26, when the high court, in a 7 to 1 decision, ordered the school to admit women. The court rejected VMI's attempt to remain all-male by creating a parallel program at nearby Mary Baldwin College, a private women's school. The court ruled that the program didn't offer women the full VMI experience available to men.

The Justice Deparment hailed VMI's decision and said it will monitor the school's enrollment policy.

"After six years of litigation, we are gratified that women will now be able to benefit from the unique educational opportunities that VMI has long offered to men," said Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Patrick said the Justice Department "will work with school officials to ensure that women are successfully integrated into VMI, as they have been in the military academies for many years."

VMI's superintendent, Josiah Bunting III, said that the 1,200-student school will make only a few changes for coeducation.

"Changes contemplated to accommodate the enrollment of women will be absolutely minimal," Bunting declared. "Female cadets will be treated precisely as we treat male cadets.

"I feel fully qualified women would themselves feel demeaned by any relaxation in the standards the VMI system imposes on young men," Bunting said, adding that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, "says some women have the will and the capacity to succeed in the training and attendant opportunities that VMI uniquely affords.' "

"We are going to take her {Ginsburg} at her word," added Berry, the board chairman.

Bunting insisted that the school would erect no obstacles to discourage women from enrolling, although he acknowledged that imposing the same physical requirements on women as on men might prompt lawsuits.

Female cadets will be required to take the same fitness challenge as men: six pull-ups, 60 sit-ups in two minutes and running a mile and a half in 12 minutes, Bunting said.

Some of those requirements might be altered, he said, if the school finds that women cannot meet them but can perform other equally rigorous exercises.

Berry pointed out that many enrolling male cadets cannot meet those standards initially, although they must keep trying. Passage is not a requirement for graduation.

Physical changes to VMI, Bunting said, would be limited to installing toilet and shower facilities for women in the sprawling barracks' dormitory and placing one-half length shades on dorm doors and windows, to be drawn only when cadets are dressing.

Cadets will not be allowed to date classmates below their rank or class status, Bunting said. Asked if first-year cadets could date each other, Bunting replied, "Rats {freshmen} don't have time to date anybody."

Based on the experience of other military colleges, Bunting said, VMI can expect women to make up 8 percent to 15 percent of the student body, or about 96 to 170 students.

Founded in 1839 to create citizen-soldiers to serve the state, VMI quickly made its place in the lore of Virginia and the South. During the Civil War, a corps of VMI students turned back Union troops at the Battle of New Market. About 250 students marched 83 miles from Lexington to engage the northern soldiers. Ten cadets died and 47 were wounded in an event that established the grit of the school's young men.

Near the institute's buildings, the South's two most famous generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, are buried and add to the air of military splendor that surrounds the campus. Staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report. THE ROAD TO A RULING Here are the events leading up to yesterday's decision by the Virginia Military Institute to begin admitting women next school year. March 1989: The U.S. Justice Department, saying it has received a letter from a female high school student in Virginia complaining about VMI's 150-year-old, males-only policy, asks the school to explain why the policy should be kept. April 1989: VMI officials tell Justice that admitting women would require changes in "the military and physical demands made upon male cadets" and undermine the "comradeship and spirit" shared by those who have been through the school's rigorous training. March 1990: The Justice Department sues VMI, saying that the school violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment by barring women. November 1990: Gov. L. Douglas Wilder says VMI should admit women and threatens to withhold state money from the school. June 1991: Federal Judge Jackson L. Kiser rules that VMI may continue its males-only policy. He accepts VMI's argument that it provides valuable diversity to Virginia's higher education system. October 1992: A three-judge appeals panel says that VMI's admissions policy is unconstitutional but stops short of ordering the school to admit women. It says the state could create a similar, separate military education program for women or make VMI a private college. December 1992: VMI asks the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the school's case. May 1993: The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to intervene, saying the case should be returned to Kiser for resolution. Kiser orders Wilder to come up with a solution. September 1993: Wilder proposes that the state establish a military-style training program for women at Mary Baldwin College, a private school for women in Staunton. November 1993: Justice says that a program for women at Mary Baldwin is not an adequate substitute for admitting them to VMI. May 1994: Kiser rejects Justice's objections and approves the state's plan to create a women's program at Mary Baldwin. January 1995: A federal appeals panel upholds the state's plan for a women's program at Baldwin. May 1995: With 40 students enrolled for the fall semester, summer training begins for women in Mary Baldwin's military program. The Justice Department appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to order VMI to admit women. October 1995: The Supreme Court agrees to hear the VMI case, which also could affect the Citadel's efforts to refuse admittance to women. Separately, the South Carolina school -- the nation's only other all-male state-run college -- had asked the high court to reverse a lower court order forcing it to admit a woman, Shannon Faulkner, in August 1995. Faulkner dropped out after being admitted to the school a few days. January 1996: Arguments in the VMI case begin before the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose son attends VMI, does not participate. June 1996: The Supreme Court rules 7 to 1 that VMI must admit women or give up its state funding. September 1996: VMI's Board of Visitors votes 9 to 8 to admit women starting in 1997. CAPTION: Supporters and alumni of Virginia Military Institute, wearing "Go Private" buttons, listen as the Board of Visitors votes, 9 to 8, to admit women. James Cottrell, second from right, and Alan Soltis, right, keep track of the board's vote.