Storming the Citadel

updated 01/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

DEAR MR. FAULKNER, "It is my pleasure to inform you that the Fourth Class Admissions Advisory Committee of the Citadel has given you provisional acceptance for admission." For high school senior Shannon Faulkner, the letter last January should have been cause for celebration—except that it contained one small error: Shannon is a Ms. not a Mr. In its 151-year history, no female had been admitted to the Citadel's corps of cadets, and the school had no intention of letting a mistaken assumption by its admissions department break tradition.

But Shannon Faulkner had no intention of backing down either. Shortly after she was notified that her admission was in error, she sued the Charleston. S.C., military college, which receives 28 percent of its operating budget from state funds, for sex discrimination.

Those who were appalled by the prospect of women at the school quickly counterattacked. Last December, Faulkner found a heap of garbage deposited on her ear. Earlier in the year, her family's colonial-style house in Powdersville, S.C., was pelted with eggs, and the Faulkners' mailbox was smashed. She even received one death threat by mail. Last fall a young Citadel alum approached Faulkner in a restaurant, shoved his school ring toward her face and snapped. "You will never wear this."

Throughout the harassment, Faulkner has kept her composure. "It never really got to me," she says. "There were so many more people supporting me than opposing me. I was determined to go."

She is still determined. On Nov. 17 the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld a lower court ruling ordering the college to allow Faulkner to attend day classes, pending resolution of her lawsuit claiming that the Citadel's exclusion of women is unconstitutional. But on Jan. 12, just as Faulkner was registering, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Citadel a stay, postponing her enrollment. "I don't know what to expect," says Faulkner, 19. who had planned to begin classes with 1,900 male cadets last week. "I just hope they'll see that nothing changes because I'm there."

Faulkner's continuing struggle follows nearly a year of legal wrangling that has pitted the outgoing teenager against the retired three-star general who presides over the Citadel. The battle began 19 days after Faulkner's initial letter of acceptance. That was when Faulkner received a second letter from the school, which had apparently been informed of her gender. (Shannon believes the information was passed to the school by one of her former classmates at Wren High School in Piedmont.) "You are not eligible for admission," the letter said. 'The Citadel day program is a single-gender college program for males."

In August, with the help of attorney Suzanne Coe, 28, Faulkner obtained a court order that she be admitted to classes pending the outcome of her suit. But the Citadel won an emergency stay from an appellate court, successfully barring Faulkner from campus for the fall semester. (Cadets reportedly erupted in applause when it was announced Faulkner would not be admitted.) Enrolling temporarily at the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, Faulkner kept up the fight. "I realized it wasn't just about me," she says, "but that I was carrying every woman in the state."

The Citadel argues that there is a place for an all-men's college. "Some people of both sexes perform better in the formative stages of their life in a single-gender environment," says Lt. Gen. Claudius E. "Bud" Watts III, the Citadel's president. Faulkner's position is that the Citadel has relinquished its right to deny women entry by accepting public money—S12.4 million this year. In 1992 the federal appellate court in Richmond, Va., ordered the Virginia Military Institute, the only other state-funded college that excludes women, either to go coed, give up its slate funding, establish a parallel program for women or devise another alternative. (A final decision has not been made.)

Originally, Faulkner's interest in the Citadel was sparked by a discussion in her high school education class about an article in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED concerning several egregious incidents of hazing at the college. "The class had 15 girls and one guy," recalls Faulkner. "We started talking about the fact that even though we were the top kids in our class, there was only one person in the room who could go to the school. Then we began talking about how the school got tax money. We all said, 'wait a minute.' "

When the class ended, Faulkner headed for the guidance office and picked up an application to the Citadel. After a month's research and reflection, she decided to apply. "My brother Todd went into the Navy last year and I saw how it changed him for the better," she says. "The Citadel is strong in the field of education, which is what I want to major in."

The application didn't ask Faulkner's gender, and she requested that any mention of it be deleted from her transcripts. "I wanted my application to be judged fairly," she says.

Gender aside, Faulkner would appear to have all the credentials of a model camel. A good student and co-editor of the yearbook, she played soft-ball and basketball and was a member of the school marching band. "Shannon's the dream plaintiff," says Coe, her lawyer. "She doesn't want special treatment, good or bad. She just wants the same treatment. She's never once said anything bad about the Citadel. They should be proud to have her."

According to Faulkner's parents, Ed, the owner of a fencing company, and Sandy, a high school social studies teacher, Shannon has always been a fighter. "She was born six weeks premature and had terrible food allergies," says Sandy. "We thought she wouldn't live, but she was determined." Adds her father: "Shannon doesn't attempt something unless she can do it. She watched, and then she walked. She wars silent, and then she spoke in sentences. When she wanted to go to the Citadel, I said, 'Go for it.' "

Last week, as Faulkner awaited still another legal decision on her fate, she was under no illusions that she would be welcome at the Citadel. Under an arrangement worked out by her attorneys, if allowed to attend she will live off-campus with a local family until the federal district court in Charleston resolves her case later this year. "If the honor code works the way it's supposed to, I shouldn't have any problem at all," she says. "I'm going to be a cadet, and a darned good one."

SUSAN REED
MEG GRANT in South Carolina

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