Oh, To Be A Knob!

There was, among other conten-tious issues, the question of Shannon Faulkner's hair. Shave it off, insisted The Citadel. If she was to become the first female member of the corps of cadets in the school's 152-year history, she had to be treated just the same as the other "knobs," as first-year students at the Charleston, S.C., military school are called. Outrageous, feminists protested, backed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Head-shaving is historically a means of demeaning and stigmatizing women. Faulkner herself was more philosophical. "It's just hair," she said. "It will grow back."

As it turns out, Faulkner will keep her hair for another year at least, but for now, she will not have the privilege of joining the corps and living the spartan life of a knob. Last week a federal appeals court stayed a lower-court decision to end the all-male tradition at The Citadel, which is publicly funded. Faulkner will be allowed to attend day classes, as she did last year, while her case continues to work its way through the courts.

Why the fuss? After all, other military schools admit women. At West Point and Annapolis, which have been coed since the mid-'70s, women are allowed to wear their hair in a short bob. But The Citadel is not West Point, and Charleston is not quite like any other city. "In Charleston, more than elsewhere, you get the feeling that the 20th century is a vast, unconscionable mistake," wrote Pat Conroy in "The Lords of Discipline," a thinly disguised fictional account of life at The Citadel. He described the school ("the Institute" in the novel) as "Charleston's shrine to Southern masculinity."

Like other military schools, The Citadel is supposed to produce officers and gentlemen, though only one in five Citadel graduates goes into the military. As for gentlemen, civility is said to be prized in Charleston, but Citadel supporters haven't been exactly polite lately. Conroy's former roommate at The Citadel, Michael DeVito, dismissed Faulkner's insistence that she has a right to be a cadet with a drawing-room put-down. "She is rude," he said. Last year, as she walked to class as a day student, Citadel students would fling open their dorm windows and yell obscenities at her. She received death threats, and her parents' house was spray-painted with graffiti. A column in the school newspaper, The Brigadier, has challenged anyone to be the first to "saddle-up" the "Divine Bovine." A popular Citadel T shirt proclaims 1,952 bulldogs and one bitch.

The Citadel believes it is necessary to break down boys before making them "whole men." Knob year "makes sure everyone starts out equal -- it doesn't matter how rich your daddy is or what your SAT score is or how popular you were," says third-year student Kevin Marshall. Knobs must do whatever upperclassmen tell them, and can answer only, "Sir, yes, sir," "Sir, no, sir," and "Sir, no excuse, sir." Having been bullied, some Citadel men become bullies: though hazing has been outlawed, almost every year a Citadel student is brought up on criminal charges for abusing a knob. The Citadel "is preparing soldiers who might do splendidly at Gettysburg," said Linda Grant DePauw of the Minerva Center, which conducts research on women and the military.

All this raises the question of why Faulkner wanted to apply in the first place. She seems at once determined to join The Citadel's anachronistic culture and to challenge it. She was aware of the institution's strange traditions, but she knew that the school has a good academic faculty, and The Citadel old-boy network is the most powerful in the state. Citadel graduates are proud to "wear the ring" of their classes. "To her, it means prestige. It means you've proven to yourself that you can do it," says her lawyer, Bob Black.

For all the turmoil she has caused, not just in Charleston but in feminist circles and on op-ed pages around the country, Faulkner seems calmly deliberate. Her parents admit to being distressed by her ordeal, but her mother says Shannon never complained about the verbal abuse. With friends, she jokingly asks why anyone would spread rumors that she's a lesbian when she's fighting to get into a school with 2,000 men. Last week Faulkner said she was disappointed that she would not be able to enroll this year (a flute player, she was planning on reporting early for band practice), but looked forward to eventually joining the corps.

There is a good likelihood that she will be able to. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear her case this fall, has already ruled that the Virginia Military Institute, a similar state-supported military school, has to admit women or set up a similar program for females. Since The Citadel has no sister school on the drawing board, it will likely have to open up next fall. If so, Faulkner will not be alone. Forty-two other women have applied for the privilege of a head-shave and the chance to wear the ring.