- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Amanda Ryan went off to college this fall, but changed her travel plans at the last minute. Instead of stopping in Lynchburg for her freshman year at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, she headed a few miles north to Sweet Briar College.

She made the detour because of a planned vote by Randolph-Macon’s trustees on admitting men to the 115-year-old school.

Miss Ryan, who helped organize an online petition opposing the change, said the prospect of male students on campus was not the only reason she switched schools. A resident of rural Beaverdam in Hanover County, she felt safer out of the city at all-female Sweet Briar.

“The coed on top of all that was just too much for me,” she said in a telephone interview.

Randolph-Macon officials expected the firestorm from students and alumnae that has erupted in the past month since they announced Saturday’s vote.

But they view coeducation as the only way to preserve the school’s mission of high academic standards for undergraduate students.

“I’m absolutely livid,” said Amy Rose Morris of Wilson, N.C., a 1986 graduate.

The sentiment is shared by numerous alumnae, students and others who signed online petitions, telephoned and e-mailed the college.

Seniors carried signs and wore yellow T-shirts saying “Keep R-MWC a WC” at the college’s opening ceremony last week, and more protests are expected before the vote.

They were upset not only about the possibility of Randolph-Macon becoming coed, but also over how quickly they think the decision is being made.

Jennifer Lee of Honolulu, a junior, said she heard last year that admission of men was being considered, but she had the impression it wouldn’t be anytime soon.

If the board approves the change, men would be admitted next fall.

“Many feel they’re late in telling us what’s going on,” said Miss Lee, who was on campus before classes started to help freshmen get settled.

Ginger Worden, the college’s interim president, said students have been kept informed during the college’s three-year study of ways to get more financial stability.

Research last fall indicated that Lynchburg is not a good location to maintain a women’s school, she said, and a survey of college applicants last spring confirmed the findings.

“Women were more interested in the college if it was coed than if it was single-sex,” said Miss Worden, a 1969 R-MWC graduate.

The number of single-sex colleges has been declining. No more than 3 percent of women today want to attend a women’s institution, according to the Women’s College Coalition, an association of women’s schools.

There are about 60 women’s colleges left in the nation, according to the coalition, and a handful that are all-male — including Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Regis College, a Catholic women’s school in Boston, voted last week to admit men.

The other two women’s colleges in Virginia, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College, have survived by adding master’s and other programs and admitting men to some of them.

Physics professor Peter Sheldon, a member of Randolph-Macon’s strategic planning committee, said the committee found that Lynchburg does not have a large enough population to support graduate programs at Randolph-Macon. Besides, he said, he didn’t want to see the school grow that way.

“It would take the focus away from excellence in teaching undergraduates,” he said.

Opponents of the coed proposal noted that Randolph-Macon’s endowment of about $140 million is larger than it has been in recent years, but Miss Worden said the school has had to offer large financial incentives to attract good students.

Enrollment this fall is about 700, down from a student body of nearly 900 in the 1960s.

The retention rate is about 61 percent, a figure that Miss Worden said “certainly doesn’t reflect the quality of our institution.”

Jessica Barousse, a junior from Mantua, N.J., said she didn’t particularly want to go to a women’s college, but has come to treasure it. “It feels like home,” she said.

Even freshmen who had been on campus only a few days said they felt a sisterhood.

“There’s this trust factor that you don’t have when guys are around,” said Katlyn Bullock, a freshman from Richardson, Texas.

Among Randolph-Macon Woman’s College’s distinguished graduates are Nobel prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck; Emily Squires, director of TV’s “Sesame Street”; and U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, who was the youngest woman elected to the chamber when she won the office in 1998 at age 37.

However, novelist Lee Smith, a 1967 Hollins graduate, questioned whether women’s schools are still needed for women to succeed.

“The women’s college was wonderful for me,” she said. “I don’t really think it’s perhaps as necessary now as it was then because I think women are encouraged as much as men to try any profession they want.”

Miss Worden said a faculty-staff committee that contacted counterparts at former women’s schools found that for the most part the character of the schools did not change after they went coed.

“The honor code had not suffered. The traditions had not suffered,” she said.

College officials have been hearing suggestions for a drastically new school name if the trustees decide to admit men. There already is a Randolph-Macon College, a former all-men’s school in Ashland.

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