In two weeks, this year's crop of 600 "nobs" will descend on the white-washed campus of The Citadel, and for the first time in the school's 150-year history, three women will be among them.
In contrast to a year ago, when The Citadel fought and lost a bitter court battle against admitting its first female cadet, school officials say they are readying for this year's women "very thoroughly and very enthusiastically."
But critics and those who've experienced the process of transforming an all-male institution into a coeducational school say The Citadel is rushing ahead by admitting women after only three months of planning and that the school would better serve its female cadets by waiting a year to allow more women to enroll.
One of the three women who signed on to enter the Citadel on Aug. 24 says that she hasn't heard specifics of where she'll be living or what will be required of her. "I went to a meeting ... and they couldn't answer any of my questions. They don't know what's going on," says Kim Messer, from her home in Clover, S.C.
Whether The Citadel's first coeducational year is a success will touch more than Ms. Messer and the two other expected female cadets.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington could no longer educate its female applicants in a separate program at a nearby women's college, VMI will be watching The Citadel experiment closely. At a time when women represent 22 percent of the military and one of the fastest growing segments of the armed services, the enrollment of women at The Citadel represents an important step forward, military officials say.
This week, the Citadel presented its plan to include women to a federal judge in Charleston, S.C., who is monitoring the school's admissions policy.
Citadel spokesman Col. Terry Leedham says the plan details that female cadets will have separate rooms but be fully integrated in the barracks with men; they will take part in all the same drills and classes, but will not shave their heads. The Citadel will use Army standards for the women's physical requirements.
The school will require sexual-harassment awareness classes, but no special support group - as was set up at the military academies when they first accepted women - will be established to help the women cadets adjust to the school's boot-camp-like atmosphere. "They are coming in here for a nob experience. This is not a Sunday school or a country club," Colonel Leedham says.
Planning is essential
The Citadel's first co-ed year is being closely observed within military circles. Lt. Col. Richard Ballard, in the office of the deputy chief of staff of personnel at the Pentagon, says he's worried that the school hasn't allowed enough time to hammer out the myriad details involved in making a school co-ed.
Citadel officials announced they would accept women this year two days after the VMI Supreme Court decision in late June. "You need some time to do adequate planning," he says. "The Citadel will have a much more difficult chance of succeeding because it [admitted women] haphazardly and at the last minute."
Colonel Ballard graduated from West Point in 1974, the year the military academy began its two-year process of preparing to introduce women. At that time a committee was formed - including military instructors and sociologists - to look at what steps could be taken to smooth the transition of having women on campus. "It works when common-sense heads get together and come up with common-sense solutions," he says.
Planning is important because there are so many details to consider - from the height of the walls on the obstacle course to a student dating policy to a ruling on what jewelry is acceptable, says retired Capt. Glenn Gottschalk at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Before the Naval Academy went co-ed in 1976, it took 10 months to think through where it would house its female students, how many would be included in each academic class, and what they would wear. Yet even with that much lead time, the transition was not completely smooth, says Captain Gottschalk, who was a resident director when the first class of women was admitted.
The admissions policy took years to perfect. While the academy had an abundance of statistical data on what made a male applicant likely to succeed, no one knew what mix of ingredients was best to ensure that female applicants would excel.
Eventually, Gottschalk says, high school varsity sports became a key indicator. Over the years, officials saw that women who had played high school sports could manage their time better and were more successful at the academy in general.
Military officials say that The Citadel and VMI could require less preparation time to integrate women because they'll benefit from the lessons already learned by the military academies. Gottschalk says he has fielded inquiries from VMI. Col. Patrick Toffler at West Point says he has answered questions from VMI and The Citadel about housing, uniforms, and physical training for women.
Strength in numbers
Even more than prep time, some say The Citadel should have waited a year so it could admit a larger group of women in its first class.
The most profound difficulty that women face when coming to the Naval Academy, Gottschalk says, is dealing with being a minority. Unlike racial minorities who have coped with their minority status their whole life, women are more likely to have experience being a minority in certain settings, but never for their total existence. "Here, she never sees that change," Gottschalk says. "The environment doesn't change when she goes home. It's a 24-hour experience."
That's why he says having at least 20 women in the first co-ed year is a must. "In my mind, unless you can bring in a large enough class of women, it's going to be very hard."
There were 81 women in the first class at the Naval Academy, 119 at West Point, and 157 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Of those, 55 graduated from the Naval Academy, 62 from West Point, and 97 from the Air Force Academy.
Citadel spokesman Leedham says the school never considered waiting to admit women. "Had we suggested that we wait a year, we would have been crucified," he says.
"We've said all along that once the .... highest court in the land ruled on this, we would be quick in our compliance."
In the meantime, Messer says she is confident she's made the right decision in choosing The Citadel over a military junior college in New Mexico - her second choice.
"The Citadel is where I've always wanted to go," she says. "I wanted a career in the Army and a military education, and I think The Citadel offers me the best.
"I'm very prepared for this," she says. "Physically, I'm in shape; mentally, I think I'm ready. Overall, I know I'll make it."