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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Just Another Harebrained Tradition at the Citadel

August 10, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

When the battle is over and the Citadel's ranks of students finally include women--as they must--the skirmish over Shannon Faulkner's hair will be only a footnote in her admirable struggle for equality.

She has been harassed, abused and even threatened with death, but Faulkner, 19, has finally won the right to attend the 152-year old, all-male (but hardly exclusive) South Carolina military academy. Although the school is appealing, it is likely that five days from now--per a federal judge's orders--Faulkner will be able to don a uniform, live on campus and participate in Citadel life as fully as its neo-Neanderthal student body will let her.

Before that happens, however, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck is slated to rule today on whether Faulkner must submit to the hallowed "10-second" haircut--the instant shearing away of identity and individuality that signifies both the gruntlike status of the new cadet and the greater glory of the group.

Last week, Houck said he could find nothing in the law to prevent the Citadel from shaving Faulkner's head. But after the Justice Department filed a motion asking Houck to reverse or stay his decision pending an appeal to a higher court, the judge agreed to reconsider.

Faulkner, whose strength of character should inspire her classmates, has said she will shave her head if she has to.

I say go for it, Shannon. Let 'em buzz ya.

They can take away your hair, but they take away your dignity only if you let them.

*

By fighting to keep women out, it's difficult to imagine exactly what the Citadel is trying to preserve, except the dubious tautological ideal of tradition for tradition's sake.

Stories about Faulkner's legal battle against the all-male bastion generally contain emotional quotes from cadets that go like this: "The Citadel is an incredible brotherhood, and you just can't have a sister in a brotherhood." Or: "Having girls here would lower our standards."

Lower our standards?

Citadel freshmen had average GPAs of 2.5 and SAT scores of 967 (out of 1600). Faulkner graduated with a 3.7 grade-point average and earned 1,040 on her SAT.

Surely the Citadel makes no claim to exclusivity--last year, after all, it accepted 1,236 of the 1,472 who applied.

Nor does the school swell the nation's armed services with Citadel-trained officers. These days, most graduates--soon an estimated 80%--eschew military service and plunge directly into the job market . . . as highly disciplined junior executives, one imagines.

So what are the stakes? In this age of women in combat, what does an all-male Citadel exist for?

Apparently, the Citadel exists to give young men a good, publicly subsidized education at a reasonable price--in-state freshman pay about $10,000 for room, board and tuition; seniors pay $7,755.

For many, the Citadel is a way to transform the bumpy road of life into the superhighway of success: It's a guaranteed admission into a particular kind of old boys' network.

A tradition any old boy-in-training worth his class ring would fight to maintain, I guess.

*

The cynical view is that the Citadel's insistence on shaving Faulkner's head is another angry assault on her dignity by an institution bent on making her pay in all sorts of ways for daring to change it. The charitable view is that Citadel officials simply can't help themselves.

Probably, it's both: a terminal case of lack of imagination, combined with a virulent strain of retribution. The Citadel is a place that doesn't just revere tradition; it is held hostage by it. So just as cadets and administrators seem unable to conceive of a woman in their midst, neither do they seem able to conceive of a freshman with hair in August.

The first year, after all, is called "knob year" in honor of freshmen's hair-free heads.

Head shaving is among the rituals (hazing being another) that pass for deep emotional bonding in the context of a military academy.

As the attorney representing the Citadel put it: "Many cadets describe it as the most humiliating moment of their lives. For us to say to Faulkner that she be treated differently would hurt her chances for assimilation into the corps."

The doublespeak is stunning. First, the Citadel argues that men and women are too different to be able to attend the school together. Now they say Faulkner has got to be one of the boys. These people would not recognize a shade of gray if it stuck them where it hurts with a flaming harpoon.

So do it for assimilation, Shannon. Do it because the Citadel imagines this as the ultimate humiliation and it's only hair. Show them again your courage and grace.

After all, it could be downright heavenly not to worry about your coif every day.

No good hair days, no bad hair days. Just no hair days.

There's got to be a certain liberation in that.

Which is just what the Citadel needs.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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