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Appeals court offers options on VMI's status


WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court raised a threat yesterday to Virginia Military Institute's right to continue getting state financial aid as long as it allows only men to enroll, but did not order it to admit women.

In a compromise ruling in a celebrated test case over single-sex colleges, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said the state of Virginia had offered no proof of why VMI as a state-supported college should be open only to men.

But it also ruled that VMI had justified excluding women, on the theory that admitting them would force such a change in the school's hard disciplinary and physically demanding program that VMI would no longer be what it is now.

It was clear that the decision made no sweeping new law on the constitutionality of public colleges for only one sex. It was restricted closely to the special case of VMI.

The institute, a 153-year-old college in Lexington, is considered among the toughest military schools in the nation because of its tradition of seeking to break down cadets' prior views and habits so that it can remold them as rigorously disciplined "citizen-soldiers." It now has about 1,300 students.

The ultimate ruling by the three-judge appeals court turned on the tie between the state of Virginia and VMI.

This raised the prospect that VMI could go on as a men-only college, by giving up $150,000 a year in state scholarship money.

The court sent the case back to a Roanoke judge, so that the state could come up with some plan to assure that it is not spending public funds for special educational programs for one sex only.

While saying that other ideas might be suggested, the appeals court ticked off these possibilities:

* The state, while still giving money to VMI, could decide to let women attend and adjust the program to accommodate them.

* It could set up another women's college modeled on VMI.

(It could set up "parallel programs" -- presumably at colleges other than VMI.)

* Or, it could "abandon state support of VMI, leaving VMI the option to pursue its own policies as a private institution."

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