Lockstep keydets

VMI

The 1,500 students at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) are all ROTC cadets but there are not enough majors across disciplines. Of the 14 majors available at VMI, 83 percent of students are enrolled in the seven most popular, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. To fix this disparity, Brig. Gen. R. Wane Schneiter, dean of the faculty and deputy superintendent for academics, has proposed a plan which would make applicants' intended majors a significant factor of admissions decisions. In what one VMI professor called "academic socialism," admission selections would be the means to achieve a more balanced distribution of majors, as what a student wants to study could determine his entrance.

Military minds developed the plan anticipating the simple maneuver a student could use to more easily gain admission - applying as one major before switching after acceptance. The proposal stipulates students will only be able to transfer into a major with fewer than 200 students. They could only switch into a major with more than 200 if they could arrange to take the place of a student transferring out of it. This policy is scheduled to begin next year.

The reactions to this reform are polarized. Some champion the idea for strengthening academic diversity and giving more attention to neglected fields. This plan could rescue programs which might otherwise decline in enrollment until no one is left in them. Plus, a large part of the VMI experience is discipline - a 2002 policy disallows cadets from getting married or having children without being dismissed from the corps, and there are uniforms and rules. This agenda would likewise make academics more regimented. This is one more, top-down order, not uncommon at VMI. But those who have problems with the chain of command should not be in the military.

Others, including us, say this is arbitrary, sudden, restricts choice and potentially bars accepting students who would be qualified from taking popular majors, which are in demand for a reason. Prospective students may be ambivalent and not know which major to apply for. The quota could prevent enrolled students from changing majors for the sake of passion or practical reason. Even cadets signed up for military college may not know what to do with their lives.

Not to mention how all this might play out psychologically for freshmen. At VMI, first-year cadets are known as "rats" and are subject to all sorts of traditional idiosyncrasies: walking only on certain lines, random inspections of clothing and the memorization of arcana, with other restrictions over and above the typical call of duty. More strident criticisms of tradition aside, knowing full well some freshmen got into the school much easier because of their intended major could create more internal division than unity, a nominal goal of the first year.

There are differences between VMI and the University, and some might say it is not up to University students to criticize how a military school does things. But if academic freedom is one of the freedoms worth protecting, then both civilian and military students should be allowed to choose what to study.

related stories