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Tears greet college’s decision to go coed

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 10, 2006

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- Tears and boos greeted trustees of Randolph-Macon Woman's College when they voted Saturday to admit men to the 115-year-old institution, beginning in the fall of 2007.

Board President Jolley Christman announced the decision by the 30-member board to catcalls of "Traitors!" from a group of 400 or more students, alumnae and supporters assembled outside a classroom building. The board had announced a month ago it was considering making the school coeducational, with an emphasis on global honors programs.

"Today, we begin to heal. We begin to write the next chapter in our history," said Miss Christman, who was barely audible over the crowd's chants and yells.

When interim President Ginger Worden, a graduate of the college, told the gathering, "Do not, I implore you, turn your back on this college," members of the crowd abruptly turned their backs.

"I'm sad. I'm really sad," said Gabriella Medina of Puerto Rico, a freshman. "If we can't reverse this, I guess I'm going to transfer."

Students, alumnae and their supporters opposed the move in online petitions, telephone calls and e-mails to college officials, and staged protests on campus this week. One alumnae group hired a lawyer.

Students met Saturday afternoon to discuss how alumnae can be asked to help and to plan their next action, which Anne Haley of the recently formed Coalition to Preserve Women's Education promised would be "a collective response" today. She would not be more specific.

Every other women's college that has fought coeducation successfully did so after the trustees voted for it, said Lianna Carrera, a senior from Fairfax.

"Knock on doors," she told students. "See who is interested in preserving this college."

Miss Christman told a press conference that the board's 25-2 vote in favor of admitting men followed 2 years of study of ways to enable the school to achieve more financial stability. The board met three times in person this summer, she said, and at least five times by telephone conference.

Officials would not identify the two members who voted against coeducation. Two new members on the board were ineligible to vote, and a telephone connection with another was lost.

College officials expected the resistance, but have said coeducation was the only way to preserve the school's mission of high academic standards for undergraduate students.

Officials have had to dip into Randolph-Macon's $140 million endowment to operate the school because large financial incentives were required to attract good students, Mrs. Worden said.

One alumna said Saturday that she was changing her will. "I think it's financially doomed," said Helen McGehee, Class of 1942, who was with the Martha Graham Dance Company for 29 years and started the dance program at Randolph-Macon.

"They don't even have name recognition," she said. The school must adopt a very different name -- there already is a Randolph-Macon College, a former all-men's school in Ashland. Miss Christman hoped a task force would have a name to suggest to the board by its October meeting.

Enrollment this fall is about 700, down from a student body of nearly 900 in the 1960s. The retention rate is about 61 percent, Mrs. Worden said.

Mrs. Worden said the college received its first application from a man Friday and hopes to admit 30 to 35 next fall. But senior Rebecca Chapman of Centralia, Wash., predicted it will be a hard sell.

"Men aren't going to come here for the same reason that women don't come here," she said, adding that she thought the college's failure to add popular majors such as business was to blame for low enrollment.

No more than 3 percent of women today want to attend a women's institution, according to the Women's College Coalition, a national association.

The nation has about 60 women's colleges, down from nearly 300 in the 1960s, and Virginia also is home to three others -- Sweet Briar College, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College. Hollins and Mary Baldwin admit men to some programs.