Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What Would Gloria Steinem Think?

Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak. ~William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Colleges have changed since I was a student. No, I don't mean that they've moved out of log cabins. What I'm talking about is that colleges seem to be realizing what they've drifted away from what they were created to do: Create an environment where students can learn, not just facts from books, but about life in the world around them. Some institutions are beginning to realize that they need to get back on track. The students and alumni, on the other hand, seem to be put out when the schools try to fulfill that mission.

I've written about a couple of strange situations lately. First, there the protests over the not-the-right-kind-of-deaf president of Gaulledet University. Then came the howls over 1500-student Birmingham Southern University deciding to move to Division III athletics from Division I in order to emphasize academics. But those incidents are nothing compared to the latest brouhaha, this time at Randolph-Macon Women's College.

RMWC is one of a dwindling number of women-only colleges. It's losing money and draws many of its students by offering financial incentives to reduce tuition costs. Unfortunately, this strategy is beginning to eat into the school's endowment, which, as any secondary education administrator will tell you, is slow death to an institution. The trustees, therefore, decided by a 25-2 vote that the only way to stay in the education business is to go co-ed.

They may as well have voted to admit orangutans.

Students have mounted protests. During one protest, the administrators tried to explain the reasoning behind the decision and were roundly shouted down. When the interim president implored the students not to turn their backs on the school, most of the crowd turned their backs on her. They posted banners, including one that said, “115 years of Women can't be wrong.”

They once said they same sort of thing about segregation, not allowing women to vote, and the Ptolemaic System.

At another news site (which, by the way, says the vote was 27-2, finding two more trustees somewhere), there were some comments posted, which as is usually the case, ranged from the outraged to the vulgar, with everything in between. The posting that caught my eye said this:

“Women's colleges turn out a higher percentage of women who go on to high profile careers than coed colleges. Grads from women's colleges are more likely to go on for postgraduate education resulting in more female PhDs than are the female grads of coed schools.

“In fact, I'm sad to say that a lot of women who go to coed colleges are depriving themselves of a rich educational environment.”

I have no idea if the writer had any statistics to back this up, but given that there are only 60 women-only schools left in the country, they aren't generating a lot of our female PhDs. Given the considerably larger number of women at co-ed schools, the percentage of them going to graduate school would have to be smaller. The statistic, if it's legitimate, is not really meaningful.

The irony here is overwhelming. It wasn't many years ago that women were working hard to break down barriers to them at men-only schools, at least partly because they felt that the educational environment was richer and potentially more rewarding. Remember the drive for women to enter the military academies? By the above poster's rationale, we'd have more female generals if women had their own academy.

A lot of people, female and male, spent a lot of effort during the twentieth century to try to ensure that anyone, regardless of race or sex, could get a quality education. Whenever a school was faced with having to remove barriers, the arguments of tradition and degradation of the college experience were trotted out routinely. Just as routinely, these arguments were tossed aside to provide opportunities to more students.

It's not that there aren't situations were men-only or women-only isn't okay. Men and women occasionally need to be in groups of just their own gender to talk freely, belch if they want to, scratch in places that aren't allowed in mixed company, and so on. But that doesn't work in the work place, in the voting booth, or in education.

The real world is full of interactions between men and women. An educational environment that supposedly prepares women for that world yet excludes men is not preparing them for anything. Perhaps going out of business isn't such a bad thing then.

But that's wrong. I like the idea of lots of different colleges, and I think the idea of one going under is tragic. If RMHC can continue and even grow by adding men to the student body, then the trustees are doing a disservice to the school if they don't go that route.

The trustees also face another problem. Once Randolph-Macon Women's College goes co-ed, they would have to drop “Women's” from their name. It turns out that there already is a co-ed school called Randolph-Macon College. That Randolph-Macon for many years did not admit women.

I tell you, the irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

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