If it is The Citadel’s goal to foster a more inclusive and accepting climate on its campus, then it did exactly the right thing by punishing 14 cadets with ties to a racially insensitive prank in which several students wore white pillowcases on their heads.

On a college campus with a history of racial exclusion like The Citadel, unpunished incidents which demonstrate bigotry or intolerance can dramatically set back the school’s current goal of inclusion. This is because administrative inaction could easily be perceived as indifference toward or approval of the offensive conduct. At these schools, a concerted effort is required by administrators and students to promote an atmosphere that is tolerant of all races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds.

When it comes to The Citadel, Lt. Gen. John Rosa correctly decided that the cadets’ professed intent was irrelevant and punished those involved accordingly. One cadet was suspended for a year, and two others for a semester. Some of the other students received other lesser, on-campus punishments, including being forced to march for extended periods at a time.

Campus discipline is different than real world criminal law in several important respects. In criminal law, the intent of someone who causes harm to another person is a material factor in determining an individual’s punishment. For example, someone who is cleaning a gun and accidentally shoots a bystander will very likely receive a different charge and punishment than someone who plans a robbery and purposely shoots the same person. From the perspective of the person who was shot, the harm is the same, but the law looks at the shooter’s intent and whether or not malice, or premeditation, was present in determining the appropriate punishment.

On several state-supported campuses across the South, the harm of racial intimidation, exclusion, or animus is more significant within the historical context of segregation. In 1970, Charles Foster was the first black student to graduate from the Citadel Corps of Cadets. By most accounts, he didn’t have an easy time. Pat Conroy, acclaimed author of the Lords of Discipline and a senior when Foster was a freshman, is quoted as saying, “This was a tough kid. I never heard one kid called nigger more in my entire life.”

Of course, this type of conduct was not limited to The Citadel and was undoubtedly experienced by other black pioneers at previously segregated schools, such as Harvey Gantt at Clemson and James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. While those black students obviously experienced hostility and were made to feel unwelcome by many of their peers, the role of college administrations in welcoming students of color and seeking to promote a welcome atmosphere has evolved over time.

Today, the leadership of most colleges recognize that in order to encourage a diverse and safe learning environment, the administration must be proactive and responsive to racially insensitive incidents. Just this past year at the University of Missouri, the president of the college resigned under pressure following claims that his administration was too slow in reacting to a number of racially motivated incidents on campus.

Certainly, The Citadel did not want to invite the same type of criticism had their highly publicized incident gone unpunished. Aside from the desire to avoid further controversy and negative publicity, it is likely that The Citadel simply wanted to send a clear message that racially insensitive acts are highly discouraged, whether or not the insensitivity was intended.

This stance shows a remarkable progression from how things were not only on The Citadel’s campus a generation ago, but on campuses all across our country. While some may question the severity of punishment resulting from this incident, the leadership of The Citadel should be commended for taking the stand that it did.