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The Citadel crawls into the modern era

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On his chest, near his heart, Justin Osborne bears a fading scar in the shape of a backward L. Tracing the ridge of hardened skin with his finger, he remembers his two years in Lima Company, one of The Citadel’s 21 cadet companies.

He and eight other Lima Company cadets gave the scars to themselves in 2005, he said. After filing down a letter pin from their uniforms until it shone, they held it in the flame of a cigarette lighter and then pressed it to their own flesh, branding themselves like livestock.

With a decade’s distance, Osborne scarcely recognizes the young man he was in the barracks. At the time, he said, he embraced the tradition of hazing so completely that he even brought it on himself.

“It was done as a symbol of the Old Corps, of you being really one of the group,” Osborne said. “So you welcomed the hazing, and it sucked, but you welcomed it ... and they knew you wouldn’t tell on them.”

Osborne’s experience at The Citadel can hardly be called an isolated incident. Troubling stories and images have leaked out of The Citadel for decades, most recently when photos of freshman cadets wearing KKK-like white hoods surfaced on social media this month. The pictures were posted the same week as the six-month anniversary of the Emanuel AME church shooting, stirring up questions about the racial climate at the quintessentially Southern military college and placing it back in the national spotlight four years after it drew criticism for failing to catch a serial child molester in its ranks.

Long before the white-hood incident brought scrutiny from outside The Citadel’s gates, critics spoke up from within. According to accounts by former school officials from the past decade, The Citadel has become a relic of antiquated thinking on leadership practices, at times more closely resembling a garden-variety fraternity than a modern military college. While other military schools have long since abandoned the adversarial system that pits upperclassmen against freshman “knobs” or fourth-classmen, The Citadel has kept that system as a central part of its culture.

“We were on the cutting edge of irrelevance with some of the graduates we were producing,” said retired Col. Gregory Stone, who served as commandant of cadets at The Citadel from 2005 until 2009.

Looking to change an ingrained culture that has been passed down by the ties of family and cadet companies, The Citadel’s current leaders have cracked down on hazing and committed to training cadets after their first year in sound leadership principles, following the example set decades ago by the federal military academies. The school-sanctioned side of the first-year experience will remain the same rigorous, ego-dissolving ordeal it has always been, they say, but the next three will be more constructive than they have been in the past.

Citadel Provost Connie Book said she was reminded of the need to transform the school when the photos of white-hooded fourth-class cadets surfaced Dec. 10.

“What the events of last week made readily apparent to me was that we can do more in our general education curriculum,” Book said, especially in the mandatory leadership curriculum now in place for every class.

Still, even though the incident attracted scrutiny, Book said she saw signs of progress in the way cadets handled it. According to Book and other school officials familiar with an ongoing investigation, upperclassmen who were present in the room told the freshmen to remove the hoods. Significantly, she said, it was a junior who alerted the administration.

“That lets us know that some of the things we have in place are working,” Book said.

On the day the photos leaked, Citadel President retired Lt. Gen. John Rosa quickly told the press that eight cadets had been suspended and that the images were “not consistent with our core values of honor, duty and respect.”

But Kevin Dopf, a former assistant commandant who left the school in May, echoed the sentiments of several former cadets interviewed for this story when he saw the images: He sadly was not surprised.

“Every two to three years, wild accusations come out, and most of them are true,” Dopf said. “I can’t speak on this one, and I wouldn’t try to, but it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Under the fourth-class system, freshmen must obey any lawful order from any upperclassman officer. Under this system, anecdotes of racial discrimination and brutal hazing have trickled out of The Citadel’s insular barracks for decades, whether in the form of police reports, lawsuits or after-the-fact recollections to documentarians of school history.

In 2014, a year before he left his position in the Citadel’s administration, Dopf completed a doctoral dissertation highlighting the cultural and structural problems he saw over the course of nine years working with cadets. He started by interviewing a dozen current and former high-ranking Citadel officials.

In one undated report, Dopf heard from a current administrator with nearly 20 years’ experience at The Citadel,upperclassmen locked fourth-class cadets in lockers and threw them down a flight of stairs. One year on Ring Night, according to the same official, older cadets duct-taped a sophomore from each company to a chair in a barracks quad so that seniors could brand them with their class rings.

Other abuses were psychological: One of the school’s first black cadets told a historian that upperclassmen blindfolded him, placed a noose around his neck while screaming racial epithets and then kicked a chair out from under him — only to reveal that the noose was not secured. He later described the drop to the floor as “the longest second of my life.”

A cadet from Pennsylvania named Christopher Kibbee dropped out of The Citadel after one semester in 2009, telling The Post and Courier that upperclassmen had glued the pages of his Bible together, told him to jump off the roof of a barracks (which he refused to do), and gashed his forehead repeatedly with an unsharpened pencil and denied him meals.

“People have asked me why I didn’t do anything,” Kibbee said at the time. “I was just shell-shocked.”

At a school where only about one-third of graduates enter military service, Dopf said the implications of the fourth-class system for civilian life are particularly troubling.

“(The fourth-class system) may build bonds with that class, but it doesn’t help you when you go out and you go into business or the military and you have to lead people,” Dopf said in a phone interview. “If you try to lead people like that, you might go to jail.”

Dopf, who previously worked at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, sought in his dissertation to compare how well the two schools had succeeded in moving from the old-fashioned adversarial model to a more modern leadership-development model.

After reviewing the schools’ histories and interviewing leaders from both institutions, Dopf concluded that West Point had mostly succeeded in leaving its old ways behind, with many of the significant changes taking place under the presidency of Lt. Gen. David Palmer in the late 1980s.

“The Citadel,” he wrote, “has thus far been markedly less successful in making the transition.”

Whereas Citadel upperclassmen sometimes take pride in weeding out knobs through harsh treatment, West Point upperclassmen are tasked with ensuring their subordinates’ success, Dopf found. Failure on the part of a West Point “plebe” can affect the leadership grades of the upperclassmen who are assigned to mentor and guide him.

“Gen. Palmer stated that he had to create a sense of urgency, since many did not agree with him that change was needed,” Dopf wrote.

Rosa, The Citadel Alumni Association and the Board of Visitors declined to comment for this story.

Rosa did very little to address the fourth-class system after assuming leadership of the public college in 2006, according to Dopf. A provost who worked under both Rosa and The Citadel’s previous president reported that he “never saw a plan to change the system, even incrementally,” according to Dopf’s paper.

“Nearly all of the people interviewed for this research agreed The Citadel had a two-class system,” Dopf wrote. “The freshmen who survived were well-trained in followership, but there was little to no leadership development of the upper-class cadets.”

Retired Capt. Geno Paluso, a former Navy SEAL officer and 1989 Citadel graduate, took over as the college’s commandant in the spring of 2014 and launched an unprecedented inquiry into hazing incidents. Paluso ordered knobs to report any violations of cadet codes, announcing in March 2015 that he had received 85 complaints. The ensuing investigation resulted in 11 cadets either dropping out or being suspended. Another 39 cadets received on-campus punishments or lost privileges.

“What’s in (Dopf’s) dissertation is right — for the time period he was here,” Paluso said.

The school has also started a Leadership Development Program, which sets specific goals and responsibilities for each of the four years. Paluso instituted a “Corporal Academy” program, in which fourth-classmen spend several days in mid-March receiving training on how to effectively lead as sophomores. Similar programs are also in place for rising juniors and seniors.

“These are all preliminary things,” Paluso said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

Paluso said The Citadel has only had one confirmed incident of hazing this school year, a marked improvement over last year.

Calls to reform the fourth-class system date back to 1943, when long-serving President retired Gen. Charles P. Summerall told the college’s Board of Visitors, “The oppression exercised over fourth-classmen is not discipline but the antithesis of discipline. This is shown by the indiscipline of those who were subjected to its so-called benefits as soon as they became oppressors.”

The Citadel appointed committees to assess the fourth-class system once a decade starting in 1968, but the recommendations from those studies have been partially followed, dialed back and at times flatly ignored by the board and sitting presidents, according to Dopf’s dissertation.

Dopf highlighted the case of former Citadel President retired Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient who survived more than seven years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. He took over as The Citadel’s president in 1979 and, appalled by the state of the fourth-class system, spent most of his time at the school working to eliminate hazing.

Campus surgeon Dr. Frank Mood told Stockdale of “inhumane” conditions including fourth-classmen who had been denied food and proper rest. In response, Stockdale commissioned a report that called for decreasing the number of tasks crammed into freshman cadets’ first week, eliminating fourth-class system activities in the mess hall “with the exception of instruction in good manners” and relaxing some requirements for freshmen when standing in formation.

The Board of Visitors approved the recommendations, but school leaders from the time said the policy changes did little to reduce hazing. One contemporary suggested that despite Stockdale’s status as a national war hero, he was unable to effect real change in the college’s culture because he was “neither a graduate of the institution nor a Southerner.”

Over the intervening years, a series of Citadel presidents and commissions described the fourth-class system in practice as “overzealous,” setting “a negative tone,” “very mean-spirited” and “filled with abuse and hazing.” In 1997, a committee of military science professors found that the fourth-class year was a “rite of passage” but did not serve to produce self-disciplined third-classmen. “In the end many only want to hold rank so they can in turn repeat the abuse,” they wrote.

The Blue Book, a manual for cadet life at The Citadel, says the purpose of the first year’s tough rules is “to accelerate and make second nature the habits of self-discipline, teamwork and a collective sense of accountability for everyone on the team.”

Justin Osborne said he embraced those ideals when he enrolled in 2005. His uncle had graduated as a Lima Company member; he knew the drill.

But in the barracks, beyond the official regimen, Osborne performed tasks that he sensed would earn the respect of upperclassmen as part of what he called a “testosterone-filled boredom fest.”

Toward the end of his knob year, Osborne got permission to leave campus and visit his girlfriend. When he returned, upperclassmen gave him a hard time for it and told him to perform an “air chair,” squatting with his back against a wall and holding a rifle with arms straight out at chest height until he collapsed in a heap.

“Osborne, you’re a son of a bitch,” one of the older cadets said, and Osborne knew he’d made it into the good graces of the Corps of Cadets.

The fourth-class experience succeeded in breaking him down. By the end of a year without privacy or free time, he said he had forgotten his parents’ home phone number.

But when he got to his sophomore year, he realized he had not picked up the skills necessary to lead underclassmen. He ended up dropping out after finishing his second year, partly to pursue a career with a touring rock band (he now fronts the Charleston-based band SUSTO), but partly because he didn’t see his career at The Citadel going anywhere.

“Think about this: (Upperclassmen) are in this role of leadership when just two years ago they were in the same position,” Osborne said. “They’re not very much older. They don’t have any more life experience. All they have is experience within the system that’s run by people that went through the same cycle. So the same mistakes keep getting made, and the same misguided ideas keep getting perpetuated.”

Some historical details in this story come from Dopf’s 2014 dissertation and from the 2009 book “Marching in Step: Masculinity, Citizenship and The Citadel in Post-World War II America” by Alexander Macaulay, a 1994 Citadel graduate.

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.

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