updated 11/22/2009 11:41:23 AM ET 2009-11-22T16:41:23

Virginia Military Institute is defending itself against a lengthy investigation into accusations that the school's policies are sexist and hostile toward female cadets, a dozen years after women won the right to enroll.

The federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has an ongoing investigation of a sex discrimination complaint at the small, state-supported school that so far has taken nearly a year and a half — three times longer than usual.

Defenders say VMI has worked hard to recruit women and make them comfortable since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered co-education in 1997, but women remain a small minority. Of the 1,500 cadets on the Shenandoah Valley campus this fall, 126 are women.

"The language and terminology that is used and considered acceptable by VMI in the barracks reflects a climate and culture that is derogatory and discriminatory toward the women that are required as cadets to live in the barracks," according to the Education Department's June 2008 complaint.

Details of the federal complaint were first reported by The Roanoke Times.

Is sexism prevalent?
Federal authorities are also investigating whether sexism is prevalent in VMI's tenure and promotion policies; the handling of student and employee complaints; and the school's marriage and parenthood policy, which requires cadets resign once they marry or conceive a child.

The list of specific policies authorities were asked to investigate was among large portions of the complaint that were redacted in the copy given to The Associated Press, as was any information about the complainant.

Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said 90 percent of investigations are completed within six months, but had no estimate of when the VMI probe might conclude. It is still ongoing after 16 months.

No similar complaint has been filed against The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., the nation's only other four-year state college with an all-military undergraduate program.

The complaint against VMI doesn't include accusations of sexual assault or other criminal acts, although a cadet was dismissed last spring after being charged with rape and sodomy of a female classmate. Stephen J. Lloyd of Mason Neck was convicted in October of a lesser charge, sexual battery.

The school has had seven sexual-offense complaints since women started enrolling in 1997, spokesman Stewart MacInnis said, but Lloyd's was the first that resulted in a criminal charge.

Degrading comments
Women are more likely to encounter discrimination — including degrading comments and lack of advancement opportunities — if they comprise less than 25 percent of a group, said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

"They don't necessarily want to rock the boat by complaining," she said. "It's not necessarily fear. It's just 'I want to go along to get along.'"

The Virginia military college founded in 1839 fought co-education, but since the court ruling has tried to recruit and welcome women, MacInnis said.

In June, VMI won a top award for its recruitment efforts from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based association of educational institutions.

Female cadets hold special sessions at open houses for prospective students, and the school has dedicated an admissions counselor to recruiting women.

More women are looking at VMI as an option — applications by women nearly doubled from 87 in 2003 to 169 for the current year. Of those, 50 women came to campus this semester.

Still, the school has had only 159 female graduates since it began awarding degrees to women in 2001. During that time, 2,349 men have graduated. And far more women drop out after their first year: 29 percent in the class of 2011 did so, compared with 11 percent of men.

The experience has been similar at The Citadel, which went coed a year before VMI and has had 205 female graduates. The attrition rate for female freshmen was in the teens the past two years but this fall is 28 percent, leaving 123 women and 2,000 men on campus.

‘There's a military model’
Spanish professor Mary Ann Dellinger, a member of the VMI faculty committee that makes tenure and promotion recommendations, said she hasn't seen any signs of discrimination in promotions. About 21.5 percent of the school's full- and part-time faculty are women.

Senior cadet Elizabeth Dobbins said she was surprised by the complaint, saying life is so open in the barracks that any mistreatment would be noticed.

Room doors remain unlocked and shades are pulled only when cadets change clothes. A guard is posted in outdoor common areas 24 hours a day.

The school's fitness requirements were dropped from the federal investigation when VMI lowered the number of pull-ups required of women from five to one for this academic year. MacInnis said the change was to align the school's requirements with military standards.

Dobbins, of Freehold, N.J., said she worked hard to meet the rigorous mental and physical requirements but said she didn't feel forced into a male system.

"I don't think there's a male model here," Dobbins said. "There's a military model."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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