TOM BEARDEN: The five year-old legal battle over the male-only tradition at the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI, has entered its final phase. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether it is constitutional for a state to spend tax dollars to pay for schools that admit only members of one sex. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley in historic Lexington, Virginia, VMI has admitted only men during its entire 156-year existence.
SPOKESMAN: You made a mistake. You correct it. You understand?
CADET: Yes, sir!
TOM BEARDEN: Intense and unrelenting harassment is an integral part of a daily routine for VMI underclassmen, so-called "rat" cadets. It is physically and mentally challenging. Superintendent Major Gen. Josiah Bunting explains why VMI would prefer women not be a part of that.
MAJ. GEN. JOSIAH BUNTING, Superintendent, VMI: VMI has functioned very successfully as an all-male college. It's an unusual kind of all-male college in that it is a military school. All of its activities out of the classroom take place basically in a single contiguous barracks building which is organized basically to present a culture of total egalitarianism. Minute regulation of behavior, and a complete absence of privacy all subsist in conditions of total equality. We believe that to introduce young women into such a culture is that we'd materially change the chemistry, and we think that to put what we are now at hazard in order to accomplish that simply is not an appropriate use of our resources.
TOM BEARDEN: But in 1990, the Justice Department cited a complaint about the school's admission policy made by a high school senior. Justice later sued the state and VMI, arguing that the all-male policy violated the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. A federal appeals court agreed but said that if VMI established a comparable women's program elsewhere, the Constitution would be satisfied. The state of Virginia set about to do exactly that, while the Justice Department appealed.
COACH: (speaking to student climbing hillside) All right, Jennifer. You're on easy street now. I know it doesn't seem like it.
TOM BEARDEN: Mary Baldwin College, a women's school just a few miles away from VMI, had already been planning a specialized military-style leadership program for women. Now the two schools are jointly operating the new Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, or VWIL for short. These students were the first to enroll last summer. The 43 women faced a grueling four- day wilderness course muck like incoming VMI cadets. But VMI-style harassment is not part of the women's program. Brenda Bryant is the director of the Women's Leadership Institute.
BRENDA BRYANT, Mary Baldwin College: It's different probably in terms of some of the kinds of instructional methodologies that are used in the classroom, probably a bit more cooperative learning, group-on-group learning, what we would call lateral instead of vertical relationships in the classroom. We don't wear uniforms all the time. That's something of a difference. We don't have reveille every morning like they do at VMI. So there are some structural differences. The basic elements of the program are the same, the academics, the ROTC, the physical training, and the leadership responsibilities.
TOM BEARDEN: Trimble Bailey, Kristen Ohleger, and Michelle Rogerson have just completed their first semester in VWIL.
TOM BEARDEN: Would any of you liked to have gone to the Citadel or to VMI?
GROUP IN UNISON: No.
TRIMBLE BAILEY, Mary Baldwin College: A single-sex education is a great learning experience for me. I feel that I'm able to speak my mind more and I just feel like it's working for me.
KRISTEN OHLEGER, Mary Baldwin College: It's a more laid-back scene, and I feel that I don't need to impress anybody, and it makes it easier for me to study, to get along with my studies.
MICHELLE ROGERSON, Mary Baldwin College: It's specially geared for certain people who want this kind of structure, who want this kind of place and atmosphere.
TOM BEARDEN: But is VWIL equal? And will a separate but allegedly equal program, an idea the corps struck down long ago when it came to race, pass constitutional scrutiny if applied to gender? Drama Professor Virginia Francisco was on the Mary Baldwin faculty committee that established VWIL.
VIRGINIA FRANCISCO, Mary Baldwin College: We've been a women's college for more than 150 years, and we think that what we're doing is separate and better, not separate but merely equal, meaning as it so often did in the Civil Rights era separate but unequal. I'm convinced that what we're doing here is better, much better.
TOM BEARDEN: The VWIL cadets concede their program isn't exactly like VMI's but aren't concerned about it.
KRISTEN OHLEGER, Mary Baldwin College: Yes, we are supposed to be equal, but this is our first year in the program, and at this point, I don't think anybody could say that we're anything like VMI; however, within the next three and four years, we will be adapting so that we are more like VMI. They're not trying to break our tradition, and so I do not understand why we should try to break their tradition.
TOM BEARDEN: Not all Mary Baldwin students share that view. Junior Beth Silverman.
BETH SILVERMAN, Mary Baldwin College: I believe that VMI should admit women because it is a state-funded school, fully state-funded, but, umm, Mary Baldwin is a private institution.
TOM BEARDEN: The VWIL cadets disagree.
TRIMBLE BAILEY: If they do say that women must go to VMI, there must be co-education, and not an all-male environment, then to parallel that, you should take away all female state- supported schools.
KRISTEN OHLEGER, Mary Baldwin College: If they say that VMI and the Citadel must go coed, then all state-supported female schools should have to go coed because basically that would just not be fair.
MICHELLE ROGERSON, Mary Baldwin College: If you're going to make one coed, you've got to make the rest.
TOM BEARDEN: Ironically, some believe that should VMI lose this case, all single-sex colleges that receive any taxpayer funding will also be forced to admit both sexes, including female-only colleges. That's a prospect that troubles Silverman.
BETH SILVERMAN: Single-sex education would be threatened if VMI had to admit women. I don't think that's what we want at all. I think--they think we want VMI to admit women, but I don't think we want to have that policy widespread to private colleges.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you all have a sense of history about all of this, or are you just students? I mean, do you think this is something historic that you've embarked on?
MICHELLE ROGERSON: Yes, very much so.
KRISTEN OHLEGER: I think that, especially, we're the first class.
MICHELLE ROGERSON: We're the foundation. We're starting things, and we're trying to figure out what's the best way this year, then comes next year, and we'll have more female students to input. It just keeps growing. And it's going to take years to establish what VMI has, but, you know--
KRISTEN OHLEGER: We can do it.
MICHELLE ROGERSON: --we can do it.
TOM BEARDEN: But no matter what the court decides, the state of Virginia has committed to funding VWIL for a full four years.