It is Saturday, early, and I’ve got my coffee — Gevalia 100% Arabica — and a view of my newly restored deck. This morning I’ve also got an article by Ian Shapira, saying “Freshman enrollment at Virginia Military Institute has plummeted by 25% this year.”
Apparently an incoming freshman class usually “enrolls about 500 new cadets.” This year that number is 375. VMI is understandably worried — its Superintendent, retired General Cedric Wins, saying that the school had hoped to enroll 520 new students.
For the past two years, the military college has faced allegations of racism and sexism provoking an investigation ordered by then Governor Ralph Northam. That investigation found a “racist and sexist culture.” That finding brought immediate response from a VMI alumni group — Spirit of VMI — saying the investigation amounted to “jihad” and the school’s reaction “appeasement.”
Some of you who read this column know that I, myself, went through “Hell Week” (at The Citadel) followed by eight months of physical and mental harassment sometimes called the “plebe system” at The Citadel in 1963.
The plebe system was (then) designed to eliminate the weak, remake the strong, ultimately produce a disciplined graduate who would make a good soldier. Mark Clark — the Citadel’s then President — was crystal clear in his effort to manufacture young soldiers who were tougher than those being produced in Russian and China.
In 1963, the plebe system was designed to strip-away every vestige of individuality, self-absorption, introspection. If there were flaws — if you were short, slow, fat or acne-scarred — those defects became the cadre’s low-hanging fruit. A large freshmen enrollment was important because about one-third of those who showed-up in August were gone by October.
During my time, the first Black cadet matriculated — for a short time he sat on my mess — but I was gone, graduated by the time that Shannon Faulkner decided to attend. But I can categorically guarantee each sustained constant, concentrated incoming fire based on his skin color and her gender.
The Citadel went through its long winter of discontent, but somehow, someway, it adjusted the plebe system — I really don’t know how — but I will admit that tears (of joy) came to my unbelieving eyes when I saw The Citadel’s first female Regimental Commander raise-up her saber and yell, “Pass In Review.”
All of which begs the question about the utility of a military-inspired education — or the value of a military-inspired degree in today’s tech-centric world.
Is the college experience enhanced by the nightly polishing of brass; the cleaning of one’s rifle on Friday night, the weekend-wrecking Saturday Morning Inspection? Are push-ups, self-abasement and self-denial worthy of continued life in our system of higher education?
There is, however, a strange pattern that often occurs when you attend a school like VMI or The Citadel. Generally speaking most hate it while one is actually on campus. Then, as the years pass, one begins to think it wasn’t so bad.
One day one quietly slips-on their class ring and says, “What the hell, Wanda, I think I’m going to my 25th reunion!” Finally, he (and now she) decide it was a glorious, golden time when one was living every moment — good and bad.
My own metamorphosis was slower than this. But during this painfully incremental process I never stopped loving my classmates — or mourning those who didn’t return from Vietnam.
Several years ago Colonel William Leggett — The Citadel’s VP for Communications and Marketing — saw statistics predicting a steep decline in college applications this year. He and others urged the college to create a one-year scholarship — together with a three year ROTC scholarship — effectively giving incoming students a full four years of tuition-free education. To do this he leaned on the alumni and The Citadel Foundation to help finance the costs of these scholarships — about $4 million over four years.
The alumni responded.
The alumni are also good at helping a young high school graduate decide they are going to take-on the months of mental and physical harassment that are part of the curriculum. When a student makes an application there is, within a few days, an alumnus on the doorstep talking to him or her as if they were a highly-rated, 4.5 second-40-yard-dash-running cornerback.
It is not known how these scholarships will play out over the long term. This year Citadel saw its applications go from 2,600 in 2021 to 3,500 this year — freshmen enrollment going from 693 to 790.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.