One week into its new, more feminine future, the Virginia Military Institute is basking in its early good fortune.
Aside from a pile of dead rats that were quickly discarded, there have been no ugly incidents to reinforce stereotypes of intolerance or capture national attention.
So far, only one of the 30 women who broke the school's 158-year-old, all-male tradition has left, unable to withstand VMI's famed "Rat Line."
The woman joined 13 male cadets who have quit under the Rat Line, a six-month ordeal in which orders and insults are shouted at first-year cadets.
The uneventful first week, VMI and its supporters say, validates the school's preparation for the first female cadets in its history. And it's drawing unflattering comparisons for The Citadel, the South Carolina school whose record in admitting women to its once all-male ranks has been spotty and criticized.
"I'm sure we'll have some road bumps," said Col. Mike Bissell, a VMI graduate and former commandant who is responsible for "assimilating" women into the school.
"But the question is, are they isolated? Is the road sound and will we be able to plow through these bumps?"
But some observers warn that snap judgments are dangerous, given the ferocity with which publicly funded VMI fought to keep women out of its ranks and its deeply ingrained history.
"It's too soon, much too soon, to draw any conclusions," said Val Vojdik, the attorney who brought down the gender barrier at The Citadel on behalf of Shannon Faulkner. "You can't expect them to change on a dime. And you can't expect male cadets to change their attitude if their leaders are saying they wish women weren't there."
Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the Women's Law Center, a Washington-based group that closely follows gender issues, cautioned, "VMI owes these young women far more than just the absence of abuse."
Yet despite misgivings, Vojdik and others concede that the path VMI has taken toward admitting and protecting female cadets is superior to the one taken by The Citadel.
The South Carolina school found infamy in the way it treated Faulkner during her brief stay in 1995, and for the even harsher reception it gave to the four women who enrolled last year.
Two of those women left the school alleging harassment after their clothes were set on fire by male cadets.
This year, 19 women have enrolled at The Citadel, bringing the school closer to the important "critical mass" that enables students to support each other during stressful periods.
While VMI fought just as fiercely as The Citadel to bar women, it has been far more aggressive in recruiting suitable women to take part in what a letter to potential female cadets called VMI's "fresh new chapter in its long and celebrated history."
"All VMI alumni were aggravated and saddened" when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the admission of women, said VMI's Bissell.
"But we fought the good fight and we lost. So, as good soldiers, we salute, and we do it the best of any college in this country."
Easing the transition
VMI's transition to coeducation has been aided by having 30 women in its first female "cadre." In addition, Virginia gave the school $5.1 million to pay for renovating barracks, hiring women for such staff positions as counselor of physical education, and "orienting" faculty, students and staff.
The money paid for such things as installing emergency lights and telephones across campus and financing travel to 18 campuses that have undergone a similar change in recent years.
And for an entire day last year, the VMI campus "stood down" so that everyone could receive six hours of training to explain how the institution would change, along with stern lectures on new policies dealing with sexual assault and harassment.
The school also has recruited female advisers from other military-oriented schools, such as Texas A&M;, to be counselors and aides to incoming women, an idea that The Citadel has embraced this year.
Most of all, VMI officials acknowledge the value of time. The school in the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson taught and former general and Secretary of State George C. Marshall graduated, had the luxury of two years to prepare for the arrival of women, while The Citadel had little more than two months.
The Citadel is now doing some of the same things. It conducted sensitivity training for all students and staff last spring, and this month key leaders from the school went to the Marine Corps training center at Parris Island, S.C., to learn how the Marines train women. The school has also shortened "knob year" by one month and outlawed "Hell Night," the frenzied last day of knob year when freshmen are deprived of sleep and otherwise stretched to their mental and physical limits.
Even so, educators, women's advocates and others who have watched both schools see some disturbing similarities, including lingering -- and publicly expressed -- distaste of female cadets that permeates both campuses.
"Everyone understands this is an institution steeped in policies and practices based on men. And that has not changed," said Greenberger of the Women's Law Center.
"Those in charge at VMI have to send a very straightforward message and consistent message that female students are just as welcome and just as important as men. I don't know if that message has been sent."
Vojdik and Greenberger say it will take several years before any accurate assessment can be made.
To support that view, they highlight the experience of the service academies in West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs. At those schools, women weren't totally accepted until the all-male classes graduated.
"You have to flush out the upper class because they have an emotional stake in the old ways of doing things," Vojdik said. "The experience at the other service academies was it took three or four years before that happened. It took that long before they hit their stride.
"These women are very brave; it's always tough for the first ones."
Pub Date: 8/24/97