Norwich University (Photo courtesy of the university)
Norwich University (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University)

Norwich University, a nearly 200-year-old private military college in Vermont, has granted an accepted student’s request to wear hijab in keeping with her Muslim faith, a decision that was welcomed by some but also provoked outrage for some alumni and cadets.

The same student requested a similar exception to the required uniform from The Citadel, touching off a highly charged debate at the public military college in South Carolina where loyalty to the corps is a fundamental value and individual preferences are set aside to encourage unity. The idea that the first exception might be for a Muslim student was particularly polarizing, given the national discussion and starkly divergent views about the role of Islam in U.S. culture.

The Citadel denied her request.

It was the first formal request for a religious accommodation to the uniform at Norwich, spokeswoman Daphne Larkin said, so they reached out to peer institutions “and came to the conclusion that it makes sense for Norwich to continue to be dynamic in how we serve our students.”

“Regardless of their spiritual or religious affiliation, all students and employees should feel welcome and comfortable at Norwich University,” Norwich President Richard Schneider wrote in announcing the exception to the required Corps of Cadets uniform. “Norwich University is a learning community that is American in character yet global in perspective.”

Jewish cadets will also now be allowed to wear a yarmulke.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations who has worked with the student and her parents, said, “She wants to go to The Citadel. But without the religious accommodation which now has been denied, she needed a backup plan to attend a university in the fall.  Now that she has obtained that accommodation at another school, that opens up the possibility of her going there if The Citadel decision is not changed.” Hooper has said in the past that a lawsuit challenging that decision is possible.

Of the Norwich decision, he said, “It’s just a clear indication that this is not some real problem for a military college. That this college can grant an accommodation and seems to have no problem with it, there’s no reason The Citadel can’t. …

“It’s clearly not a matter of good order, good discipline… just a matter of stubbornness and unwillingness to accommodate our changing and increasingly diverse society.”

On the response to Norwich’s decision, Larkin said “those who are in the position to lead generally are giving a more positive response.”

Some alumni were quite upset. “It’s the first private military academy” in the country, said Spencer Jacobs, who just graduated from a place that has been abiding by “the same guiding values for the last 200  years. The fact that this is changing right now is totally crazy.

“We have a common goal: Allegiance to the Corps of Cadets. …  You have to live by the Norwich founding values. We encourage service to the nation and to others before ourselves. We put our uniformity before our self and work as a team.”

Jacobs, who was raised Jewish and converted to Christianity, said he respects the student’s religious convictions and her desire to practice her faith, and he respects the decision of the commandant. He loves Norwich, which he said taught him leadership, courage, honestly and selflessness. “But if you allow one person to come in and wear the hijab I’m sure anyone can come in and request any kind of accommodation.”

The university has a civilian program, he said, but those who elect the challenge and unity of the Corps of Cadets arrive on campus with little other than a few pairs of white boxers, white T-shirts and socks. “If you have a cross outside of your uniform you’re out of uniform…. Everyone is supposed to look the same because everyone is the same. Everyone is treated the same.”

Benjamin Polizotti, who attend Norwich for his undergraduate and graduate education, designed a multicultural center in Boston for his master’s thesis for the architecture degree he just received; “I’m all for diversity, all for coexistence, all for equality among all people,” he said. “… But my overall stance is the military is not a social experiment. It serves a single purpose – to ensure the safety and freedom of Americans and humans around the world. Norwich is no exception. It’s an asset to the U.S. military. Its job is to train responsible and capable leaders, not to cater to special interests.”

Allowing one exception will inevitably lead to more, he said. “It’ll start to spiral out of control … eventually people will say, ‘I don’t want to wear the uniform because it’s uncomfortable, or infringes on my right to express myself.”

Arriving on campus is like basic training, he said. “It strips one of individuality in order to promote being part of a dynamic team. It instills service before self as a guiding value of Norwich University. Camaraderie and cohesiveness, in my opinion, are the two traits that bind the team together. And individuality is corrosive to those values. This isn’t an argument against Islam or wearing a hijab. It’s all cultures, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism. The reason everyone in the military and at Norwich wears a uniform is everyone is equal – everyone is the same – and everyone is part of something bigger than themselves.

“I don’t think that’s an infringement on their right to practice their religion because no one is forcing them to join the Corps of Cadets or the ranks of the U.S. military.”

Dusty Shimkus, who graduated in 2013, wrote in an email, “I support the administration’s decision to allow the accepted student to wear a hijab. I’m reminded of Thomas Jefferson who said, ‘The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.’ I agree, and so I think that religion is the one realm where exceptions can and should be made on a case-by-case basis as long as such exceptions don’t interfere with the mission or run contrary to the values of the school. This exception doesn’t do either.

“I also think a lot of the backlash is common in military schools, especially Norwich, where any change at all is criticized as a break from tradition (which our institutions take very seriously). While sometimes such criticism has merit, it’s important to note that this student wouldn’t be receiving preferential treatment, but rather a simple accommodation for her religious faith. She will still be held to the same standards and have the same expectations of all the other cadets.”

Fathia Mohammed, a rising junior at the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College who wears hijab with her uniform, said she was shocked to learn that most military colleges had not granted such accommodations. “In my opinion it’s not just an Islam thing, it’s religion in general… I feel there should be an exception for a person sincerely wants to practice their religious belief — because they are citizens, after all, too.”

Here is the full letter from the Norwich president:

Norwich University received a letter requesting religious accommodations with respect to the Norwich University Corps of Cadets uniform from a female student accepted into the Corps of Cadets and the Class of 2020.

Her request to the Commandant of the Corps of Cadets specifically addressed a religious accommodation to observe the hijab, a broad term that defines modest dress by Muslim women. She requested the University’s permission to wear religious head covering to cover her hair and neck at all times in uniform, and for uniform accommodations that would enable the covering of her arms and legs.

Norwich University granted the student’s request for religious accommodations respective to the Corps of Cadets uniform and will amend the Corps of Cadets Standard Operating Procedures to permit her observation of the hijab. The student has been advised that the religious headgear, in authorized colors and fabrics, must be of a style and size that can be covered by standard issue Corps of Cadets headgear and that she may wear Norwich issued long sleeve shirts and pants.

Norwich is not the first senior military college to grant such a religious accommodation respective to a uniform. The Corps of Cadets Standard Operating Procedures will also be amended to permit the observation of the yarmulke.

The Corps of Cadets at Norwich University places a high value on the rights of its cadets to observe tenets of their respective religions or to observe no religion at all. Our cadets come from all walks of life. Regardless of their spiritual or religious affiliation, all students and employees should feel welcome and comfortable at Norwich University.

Norwich University is a learning community that is American in character yet global in perspective. Our country and our institution are dynamic. As educators of future leaders, it is our duty to matriculate a diverse student body that reflects our society. Norwich prepares traditional students and the young men and women of our Corps of Cadets to welcome and respect diversity and to be inclusive of all people.

Norwich Forever,
Richard W. Schneider
RADM, USCGR (Ret.)
President