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Members of The Citadel Class of 2023 cadet recruits report to the Padgett-Thomas Barracks as they begin their knob year on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019 in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A contentious change to the fourth-class system at The Citadel has resulted in a wave of pushback from alumni, an organized protest and, now, plans for a weather balloon stunt at an upcoming sporting event.

Under the existing system, most Citadel cadets spend all four years living in the barracks and training with a close-knit group of classmates known as a cadet company. This is one aspect of the "fourth-class" discipline system, which requires freshman cadets to obey the lawful orders of any upperclassman.

Starting next year, most rising sophomores, with the exception of those in the Regimental Band and Palmetto Battery, will be assigned to a different company than they were in freshman year. President Glenn Walters announced the change in February.

The so-called sophomore shuffle has been labeled as an administrative effort to curb hazing and improve leadership training opportunities for all cadets. But the plan has angered some Citadel parents, students and alumni who say it's a break from tradition and will disrupt the close-knit bond students form during their grueling freshman year.

“Knob year is the toughest thing you’re ever going to do in your life up until that point for most people,” said Brad Bruggemann, a Citadel alumni. “You create a bond and you live with these guys and girls in your company for the remainder of your cadet life, if you choose to do so."

Bruggemann, an outspoken voice of opposition to the switch, created the Facebook page "Save The Cid" in early September. Since then, the site has been a focal point for swirling online conversations surrounding the impending change.

Last week, he spearheaded a plan to fly a banner reading “Keep Companies Together” using tethered weather balloons at the upcoming Nov. 23 Citadel football game.

"This effort wasn't cheap, was 100 percent funded by our supporters, and it was completed in less than 48 hours," Bruggemann said. "Nobody will be able to ignore this and there isn't a shortage of people that are willing to chip in to keep this movement going."

'Cross pollination'

The change is designed to improve and equalize cadets' opportunities for growth in the school's leadership development model, said Col. John Dorrian, the college’s vice president of communication and marketing.

Attrition rates often vary from one company to the next, leaving some groups with upwards of 100 students and others as low as 40. This imbalance "prevents a coherent rank structure within the company,” Dorrian said. 

Another potential benefit of the change, Citadel officials say, is a way to curb hazing and keep cadets from becoming too focused on company-specific traditions.

"Organizing our companies is a critical part of the military structure. We’re not a fraternity, we’re an organizational entity," said Air Force Lt. Gen. John Sams, who also served as interim president of The Citadel and as a former Board of Visitors chair. 

"This ‘cross-pollination’ between companies keeps cadets focused on the traditions of the college and prevents dysfunctional norms from taking root at company level," Walters wrote in a letter to cadets and alumni when the change was announced. 

The weather balloon banner stunt isn't the first time Bruggemann publicly called attention to the shuffle. He compiled hundreds of comments from students and alumni against the change to send to board members and started an online petition that rapidly garnered more than 1,200 signatures. He also spoke out against the change at the annual Citadel Alumni Association meeting last month, sparking a heated debate between some in attendance. 

During the meeting, Dorrian addressed alumni and labeled Bruggemann's Facebook page as a "misinformation site."

"I’m not just one person," Bruggemann countered. "I’m speaking out on behalf of a lot of people that have reached out to me. So when y’all want to dismiss what I’m doing, you’re dismissing thousands of alumni."

The shuffle is the first major controversy Walters, a retired four-star general, has faced since he became president in October 2018. 

"I’m responsible for this school. And the staff is responsible for this school. And we’re going to do what’s right. And we'll adjust if it doesn't work. Nothing in life works perfect, but I'm not going to look at an issue, and do nothing," Walters said.

Bruggemann has also criticized The Citadel's board for taking what he feels has been a passive role after the change was announced.

"It seems like they no longer take an active role in what the school is going to implement in terms of policy. They're just kind of sitting back now and giving the rubber stamp of approval to whatever the administration wants," he said.

This concern was echoed by state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, Citadel Class of 2004, who took an interest in the shuffle.

Goldfinch warned one trustee in a text message that the board’s so-called inaction on the controversial policy is a “dangerous proposition at this point.” 

“Moving forward with this shuffle is going to come with consequences,” he wrote.

Goldfinch said his messages weren't threatening and were meant to encourage the board to take action. 

"What I’m trying to influence them to do is to vote," he said. "As a legislator, I care about them ceding their power to an administrator over a major policy decision like this."

The board's responsibility

While there hasn't been a formal vote on the shuffling policy itself, four months after Walters announced the change, board members unanimously passed a resolution affirming their support for the decision.   

"Not every initiative of the Board of The Citadel’s administration will be popular with everyone. Recognizing this fact, the Board unanimously passed a resolution in June supporting the administration’s initiative to balance the South Carolina Corps of Cadets each year," said Col. Fred Price Jr., the board's chair. "I know that The Citadel’s Board of Visitors has and will continue to maintain its autonomy and do what is in the best interest of the college and our state."

This type of retroactive response by the board isn't especially uncommon if the topic in question is controversial, Sams said. Dorrian recalled a similar resolution the board passed in 2015 in response to a new hazing policy, adding these type of resolutions "don't happen often because generally the operational running of the college is left to the president's discretion."

The board is responsible for the long-term strategic vision and goals for The Citadel and its graduates, Sams said, but they often leave the day-to-day college business to the president and the school's administration. 

"The obligation of the board is to produce a graduate that's most effective in the civilian world and in the military," Sams said. "The administration focuses on carrying out those policies. The board doesn't necessarily tell them how to do that. That's why you hire the best four-star general you can find. And you let them run the college. When that works in harmony, you have a great relationship."

'Not the same system'

Despite the pushback, Walters doubled down on the change at the alumni association meeting.

"If the results don’t match the output we want, we’ll adjust it," he said. "We’ve been making adjustments to this college for 176 years. This is not the same system that we’ve had since 1842."

The Citadel hasn't always kept cadets in the same company for all four years. The existing tradition has been in place since around the 1960s, Dorrian said. 

"If you want to go look at tradition, tradition speaks more to the movement of cadets among companies,” Sams said.

Even under the existing system, around one-third of all Citadel graduates end up in a different company than they started, either to take a leadership opportunity or as a result of a disciplinary issue, Dorrian said.

"Over the course of the history of the college, this sort of thing, it's been done and changed and it's changed back," Dorrian said.

But opponents of the change argue their frustration with the shuffle is about more than a break from modern Citadel tradition.

"It’s breaking up the family. It's bigger than tradition. It’s tearing apart a big piece of what this school is about," Bruggemann said. 

Goldfinch agreed and weighed the potential implications the change might have.

“One of the keystones of The Citadel is its network, and I see this policy as potentially damaging to it,” he said.

Craig Coker, another Citadel graduate, said he feels like the shuffle is unnecessary and that it will disrupt important facets of cadet experiences.

"I recognize that some things can and probably should change for the better, but in my opinion, shuffling companies is not something I'd like to see done," Coker said.

His daughter will attend the school next year.

"She doesn't understand why they are shuffling and is wary because I told her your knob company class are your closest classmates," Coker said. "Her class is going to have them all scattered."

Those in favor of the change say it's an opportunity for students to become better prepared for the leadership challenges they'll face after graduation.

"When you leave The Citadel you’re not going to stay, in this day and age, in one company and one organization until you retire," said Gregory Horton, a Citadel alumnus. "I think this shuffle is helping to steer them toward different ways of leading and learning from other people."

'How to evolve'

Similar shuffling initiatives have been implemented at West Point and the U.S. Air Force Academy to balance their corps, Walters said. 

The Virginia Military Institute does not shuffle its cadets, according to Michelle Ellwood, a spokeswoman for the school.

"The companies stay together year after year and create a strong brotherhood over time," Ellwood said.

She wasn't surprised that some Citadel alumni are critical of the shuffle.

Horton wasn't surprised either. He admitted he was originally opposed when The Citadel first allowed female students to enroll. Now he calls that change "one of the best decisions I think that was ever made there."

"Now I’m one of their biggest defenders," he said. "We all have to learn how to evolve."

Walters has said that if the change doesn't have its desired effect, the administration will adjust accordingly. 

In his original letter, he said "legacy" cadets whose parents attended The Citadel will still be allowed to request a specific company assignment either their first or second year. The shuffle affects existing Citadel first-year students, who will be assigned to a new company next school year. 

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Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

Jenna Schiferl is a Columbia native and a reporter at The Post and Courier. She has previously worked as an editor at Garnet & Black Magazine.