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Equal Education Opportunity for Women: How Should It Be Defined?

Handout: The Decision

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U.S. Supreme Court Orders VMI to Admit Women

United States v. Virginia, et al. and Virginia et al. v. United States, consolidated cases decided June 26, 1996, in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the initial decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and reversed the second decision of the Fourth Circuit.


The Virginia Military Institute ("VMI") is an all-male, publicly-funded university. It was established in 1839 and is now one of the most celebrated institutions of higher education in the United States, boasting the largest per-student endowment of all undergraduate schools in the country.

VMI is known for its military-style educational program, which is referred to as "adversative." An adversative educational model employs intense mental and physical stress to train students to perform successfully under adverse conditions and to teach them to recognize and cope with their individual limitations. Like most military-style programs, VMI students have little privacy and their daily lives are regulated in great detail. Despite the acknowledged rigors of VMI, those students who graduate have the personal satisfaction of having met and mastered challenges that their non-VMI counterparts can only imagine.

VMI’s curriculum reflects the overall quality of the educational experience it provides. VMI offers advanced courses in mathematics, the sciences, and engineering. Its faculty is well trained and well compensated. As a result of VMI’s educational program and resources, its graduates are among the most successful in the country and often stand ready to assist new VMI graduates in finding suitable positions.

There’s only one problem: No females need apply. Indeed, as of the 1980s, VMI had received admissions inquiries from 347 females but had not responded to any of them. In 1990, a female high school student filed a complaint with the United States Attorney General regarding VMI’s male-only admissions policy.

The complaint prompted the United States to sue VMI, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and others (collectively, "Virginia" or the "Commonwealth"). The Government’s federal lawsuit alleged that VMI’s male-only admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Round one of the litigation went to the Commonwealth. The district court ruled that VMI’s single-sex educational environment yields substantial benefits would be lost if females were admitted. 766 F. Supp. 1407 (W.D. Va.1991).

Round two of the litigation went to the Government. On the Government’s appeal, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s decision after holding that Virginia had not provided the requisite justification for denying VMI’s unique educational experience to female applicants who otherwise met VMI’s admissions criteria. The appellate court gave the Commonwealth three options to remedy the equal protection violation: admit females; establish a comparable all-female program; transform VMI from a public to a private institution. 976 F.2d 890 (4th Cir. 1992).

Virginia responded to the Fourth Circuit’s decision by developing a "comparable" program on the campus of Mary Baldwin College, a privately-funded, all-female college. The program, called the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership ("VWIL"), does not employ the adversative model but, instead, relies on "cooperative methods which reinforce self-esteem."

The curriculum available to VWIL students is limited to the liberal arts; no degrees are awarded in science or engineering. The faculty has fewer advanced degrees and is paid significantly less than the faculty of VMI. Students admitted to the VWIL program have lower test scores than their VMI counterparts.

The financial resources available to VWIL are substantially less than VMI’s. For example, VWIL has a total endowment of $54 million compared to VMI’s total endowment of $351 million.

With VWIL in place, Virginia commenced round three of the litigation by returning to federal district court in search of a declaration that VWIL cured the equal protection violation created by VMI standing alone. The United States opposed the Commonwealth, arguing that VWIL simply does not offer an educational experience comparable to that offered by VMI. This round went to the Commonwealth. 852 F. Supp. 471 (W.D. Va. 1994).

Round four also went to the Commonwealth; it prevailed on the Government’s second appeal to the Fourth Circuit. In deciding the case, the appellate court deferred to Virginia’s asserted interest in establishing and maintaining diversity in the educational experiences available to its post-secondary students and agreed that Virginia’s single-sex institutions further this interest. 44F.3d 1229 (4th Cir. 1995).

Round five of the litigation was contested before the Supreme Court. This time the United States prevailed. The Court reversed the Fourth Circuit for several reasons. First, the Court concluded that the appellate court failed to apply the correct level of judicial scrutiny to Virginia’s policy of single-sex higher education. On this point, the Court made it clear that a state seeking to defend any classification based solely on gender must establish an exceedingly persuasive justification and also show that the classification at issue is substantially related to the state’s identified persuasive justification.

The Court went on to reject the justifications proffered by Virginia. As to the justification of educational diversity, the Court pointed out that Virginia had shown no interest in such diversity, at least with respect to females, until 1972 when it finally opened the publicly-funded University of Virginia to females. Throughout most of its history, Virginia has viewed higher education as the province of males. In essence, the Court concluded that VMI’s male-only admissions policy simply reflected its historical male-only approach to higher education, not a policy of educational diversity.

The Court also rejected Virginia’s claim that admitting females to VMI would destroy the uniqueness of the its program. The Court acknowledged that some adjustments would have to be made for female students. The Court stressed, however, that all parties agreed that VMI’s adversative program could be applied to females and that there were females who could succeed in such a program.

The Court went on to reject Virginia’s proposed solution for its equal protection violation -- establishing VWIL. The Court held that VWIL was unequal in kind and facilities to VMI. According to the Court, the startling lack of comparability between the two schools begins with the educational experience itself and extends to the full range of educational resources available to the schools, e.g., educational programs, faculty training and salaries, financial resources, and career opportunities for graduates.

It is important to note, however, that the Court did not hold that gender-based classifications are per se unconstitutional; the Court merely held that they must be closely scrutinized. In other words, that Virginia failed the careful, heightened scrutiny the Court has applied to gender-based classifications since the 1970s does not mean that such classifications can never pass muster under the Equal Protection Clause. Accordingly, the Court’s decision says little about the constitutionality of single-sex educational programs currently being operated around the country.

>>Equal Education Opportunity for Women: How Should It Be Defined
>>Handout: Terms
>>Handout: A Case of Alleged Sex Discrimination
>>Handout: Background
>>Handout: The Fourteenth Amendment
>>Handout: Legal Factors Related to Equal Protection Cases
>>Handout: The Decision

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