Decision to go coed stirs protests
A Virginia women's college votes to admit men, starting in 2007. Some students angrily disagree.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published September 10, 2006
LYNCHBURG, Va. - Amid boos and shouts of "traitors!" Randolph-Macon Woman's College officials announced Saturday that men would be admitted to the 115-year-old institution starting in 2007.
Members of the board of trustees said going coed could help stabilize the school's finances as interest in all-women schools wanes.
But when officials floated the idea last month, it drew a sharp response. Online petitions and campus protests decried the move, angry e-mail flooded in and one alumni group even hired a lawyer to try to discourage the board by citing legal concerns.
Saturday morning, an agitated crowd of some 400 students, alums and supporters greeted the board's announcement by drowning out trustees president Jolley Christman as she tried to explain.
"Today we begin to heal. We begin to write the next chapter in our history," Christman said, barely audible over the shouting.
Christman said the 25-2 vote - she wouldn't say who the dissenters were - followed 2½ years of study. The board determined coeducation was the best way to preserve the school's mission of high academic standards for undergraduate students and said a coed version of Randolph-Macon Woman's College would emphasize global honors programs.
Interim president Ginger Worden told the students and supporters: "Do not, I implore you, turn your back on this college," but many in the crowd swiftly turned their backs on her in response.
"I'm sad. I'm really sad," said Gabriella Medina, a freshman from Puerto Rico. "If we can't reverse this, I guess I'm going to transfer."
Before Saturday's vote, supporters of single-gender education gathered on campus, many wearing yellow T-shirts distributed by the students' Coalition to Preserve Women's Education. A red-brick campus wall was lined with bedsheets turned into banners, one reading: "115 Years of Women Can't Be Wrong."
College officials expected resistance but said the move was necessary. Enrollment this fall was about 700, down from a student body of nearly 900 in the 1960s.
Worden said the school has had to dip into its $140-million endowment for operations because of the large financial incentives required to attract good students. The retention rate has been about 61 percent.
Nationwide, about 60 women's colleges remain, down from nearly 300 in the 1960s, according to the Women's College Coalition, a national association of women's schools. Virginia is home to three others: Sweet Briar College, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College, and two of those, Hollins and Mary Baldwin, admit men to some programs.
One Randolph-Macon Woman's alumna said Saturday that she was changing her will.
"I think it's financially doomed," said Helen McGehee, a member of the class of 1942. She spent 29 years with the Martha Graham Dance Company and started the dance program at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. "They don't even have name recognition."
To go coed, the school must now adopt a new name - there already is a Randolph-Macon College, a former men's school in Ashland. Christman hoped a task force would have a name to suggest this fall.
Anne Haley of the Coalition to Preserve Women's Education said in the meantime that her group would continue to fight "for what we believe in - that's women's education at this school."