A deeply divided Board of Visitors of Virginia Military Institute, forced to act by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, voted Saturday 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.
If VMI had decided to go private rather than admit women on equal footing with men, the school would have had to raise a minimum endowment of $200 million to generate the $10 million in annual operating funds now supplied by the state, according to VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting III.
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.
The VMI experience for women will be much the same as it has been for men, school officials promised.
First-year cadets live in spartan barracks that offer little privacy, rise before the sun, observe rigid timetables and march single-file everywhere they go on campus.
They are also exposed to the “rat line,” comparable in intensity to Marine boot camp, where they are tormented by older cadets.
The only changes VMI will make to the barracks will be to protect “basic human physical decency,” such as building a separate shower for women and putting curtains on the windows, Bunting said.
“Female cadets will be treated precisely as we treat male cadets,” Bunting said.
Otherwise, “fully qualified women would themselves feel demeaned.”
And he added that he wasn’t too concerned about the possibility that male and female cadets would start dating.
“Rats don’t have time to date anybody,” Bunting said.
Saturday’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.
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 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 Saturday’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.
“It’s a sad day for VMI. It’s a sad day for the state and it’s a sad day for the nation as far as I’m concerned,” said Robert Patterson, a 1943 graduate and lead attorney for the legal effort to exclude women.
The president of VMI’s alumni association, Alexandria lawyer Stephen C. Fogleman, called the decision “a severe disappointment” but said that making 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.
“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.”
Despite the decision, Berry said, there was “no question that 100 percent of the board would have preferred keeping the school allmale and state-supported.”
Trustee Anita K. Blair, an Arlington, Va., 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, Va.
“We will be watching them very closely to see it works for the women who enter.”