VMI faces complaints
of discrimination


VMI has been under federal investigation for a complaint alleging sexual discrimination since November. (MARISA VAN BRUNT/The Rockbridge Report)

The Virginia Military Institute is under federal investigation in response to a complaint alleging  sexual discrimination against women.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, in  a letter to VMI in November, informed the Institute of its investigation of the school’s marriage and parenthood policy, the VMI fitness test and the school’s interpersonal environment. The Office of Civil Rights said that it made the decision to investigate after receiving a complaint last summer from an unidentified member of the VMI community.

The complaint alleges that VMI has sexually discriminated against women in its marriage and parenthood policy and in the school-wide fitness test. The complaint also alleges that the school has permitted an environment hostile to female cadets. A separate but related complaint from the same party said that the institute did not properly handle internal complaints about discrimination in faculty matters including promotions.

Two weeks after VMI was contacted by Office of Civil Rights representatives, the school’s administration changed the school’s fitness test standards for women. Before the change, the VMI fitness test held women to the same physical standards as men. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force all have different standards for women and men in their fitness tests.

Col. Stewart MacInnis, director of communications at VMI, said he thinks the new fitness test better suits national military standards. He also said that despite attempts to make VMI more “female-friendly,” the concerns expressed by the Office of Civil Rights have been raised before.

“It’s a bit of a surprise, but it’s fair to say these issues had been raised previously,” MacInnis said.

A spokesman for the Office of Civil Rights noted that opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that VMI is guilty of the charges.

“Rather, the office is merely a neutral fact-finder,” said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, in an e-mail. “It will collect and analyze all relevant evidence from the parties involved in the case to develop its findings.”

Just a little more than 12 years ago, such issues were unheard of at the school. It was only then, in 1997, that  VMI began accepting women after losing an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The school’s current marriage and parenthood policy is now under scrutiny because of the high resignation rate of women cadets before graduation. The current policy requires pregnant female students, or male cadets who cause a pregnancy, to resign from school.

Almost 10 more women have applied to VMI for the 2009-2010 school year than applied last year. (NED OLIVER/The Rockbridge Report)

Between 25 and 35 percent of women cadets have resigned before graduating from each class since they were first allowed to attend VMI – compared with the men’s resignation rate of 14 percent. But the exact number of women who  leave VMI because of pregnancy or discrimination remains unclear. Most female cadets who have withdrawn before graduation have not cited specific reasons for their early departure.

Female cadets declined to comment on the current investigation.

In addition to investigating the marriage and parenthood policy, the Office of Civil Rights is also looking into the VMI administration’s handling of discrimination complaints, officially known as Title XI complaint procedures.

Bradshaw said that the complaint alleged that VMI’s internal procedures do not give the same attention to female student and employee complaints as they do to those of male VMI community members.

The institute’s tenure and promotions policies have also been called into question, according to the Civil Rights Office and the Rockbridge Advocate, a local monthly publication that first reported the story earlier this month. The complaint alleged that VMI’s promotion process discriminates against women faculty, said Bradshaw.

Bradshaw said he doesn’t know when the investigation will end. The last time office representatives were at VMI was in early February, when they interviewed a range of VMI community members  including faculty, administration, and female and male cadets.

Despite the recent allegations, MacInnis said, VMI has worked hard over the years to raise female attendance, and has been successful.

Three years ago, MacInnis said, the institute conducted a conference to look at the state of minorities at VMI, including women. Current cadets, faculty and alumni participated. MacInnis said that one of the initiatives launched after the conference was the hiring of a female admissions counselor to help recruit more women.

At this time last year, 153 women had applied to VMI for the 2008-2009 school year. This year, 162 have applied. There were 6,504 female inquiries about the school this year, about 1,100 more than last year.

MacInnis said that even with that trend,  there is still room for improvement.
“Recruiting more women to attend VMI is important to the VMI community,” he said.



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