September 04, 2006

Randy-Mac Attack!

Randolph Macon Woman's College (known far and wide as "Randy-Mac"), is a small girls' school* located in Lynchbag Lynchburg, Virginia.

I was amazed to learn recently that the school is considering going co-ed. This letter from yesterday's WaPo suggests that Randy-Mac is doing this in exactly the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons and is danger of committing what amounts to suicide:

Virginia's Benedict Arnold College? Sunday, September 3, 2006; Page B08

Randolph-Macon Woman's College, a small, 115-year-old institution in Lynchburg, is in a fight for its life. Despite a recent $100 million fundraising campaign, the trustees are worried about the college's fiscal health. So they're contemplating a move that would drastically alter the school's character: making it co-ed.

Randolph-Macon is no college for training happy homemakers, nor is it a finishing school for pampered belles. Founded to promote opportunities for women to excel in a man's world, it produced early on one of the nation's strongest experimental psychology departments and graduated Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck. More recent graduates include Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). One-third of the 750 students are minorities or from other nations. Randolph-Macon's ecumenical spirit has inspired fine programs and attracted adept faculty and distinguished visiting professors. It has a $140 million endowment, a world-class art collection and tuition that is lauded for its value.

So what's wrong? The trustees are paying out more from the endowment than it is earning to cover the school's bills. At the current rate, the college will spend down its endowment in about 20 years. But the trustees feel the need to fix the situation quickly. At their meeting this week they will consider making the college co-ed.

Men, once the problem, are now seen as the solution.

This proposal has predictably enraged students, alumnae and many faculty members. They regard the move as ill-advised and are baffled that the proposal was unveiled in August, leaving them little time to react (and mobilize).

The sense of betrayal among students is palpable. They came to the school believing its literature about the benefits of studying in a supportive, single-sex environment and enduring snide allusions to assumed homosexuality. As women's colleges beat the norm in producing PhDs, chief executives and other professionals, they had a case. Now, say the trustees, "never mind."

The college could consider adjusting its tuition -- either charging more for those who can afford it or less in an effort to draw more full-paying students. It could cut back on scholarships or add graduate programs. Trustees could continue the fundraising campaigns that regularly engage college boards around the country. Instead, though, they are ready to throw in the towel.

To "save" the college, the trustees propose to enroll men, start men's athletics and initiate a poorly defined global honors program. But few believe an NCAA Division III football team will save the school, and as a small liberal arts college it will be disadvantaged against well-established institutions. Will enough men be interested to produce a significant increase in tuition? Let's not forget that the school will have to pay to change not only its bathrooms but its very name -- Benedict Arnold College has been angrily suggested.

By moving to dispose of the college's century-old mission, the trustees have alienated the students, alumnae, parents and donors they are supposed to represent. (Indeed, many alums say they will not financially support the college if it enrolls men.) Rather than saving the college, the trustees could imperil it.

-- Richard Kurin

Falls Church

The writer's daughter attends Randolph-Macon Woman's College

Now, I don't pretend to understand all the arcana of the business of running a college, but nonetheless I think Mr. Kurin raises some excellent points. The competition among girls' schools is fierce enough. In order to survive in the market, each of them has to work to carve out a distinctive sub-niche, something to make itself stand apart. Among Virginia girls' schools, Randy-Mac has always been recognized as an egg-heady sort of place. The girls there - and I dated one in the days before the Missus - are generally seen as more academically intense and, well, nerdy than students at their sister schools. As the writer understands, this is Randy-Mac's selling point and really ought to be the focus of the trustees' plans. (By the way, whenever somebody associated with Randy-Mac starts making snide comments about "finishing schools" and "pampered belles", they're almost invariably referring to Hollins and Sweet Briar (the Missus' alma mater), about which Randy-Mac has a distinct social inferiority complex. All I can say is "heh".)

But if Randy-Mac chucks this and tries to compete in the wider market of co-ed schools? I think it's going to have a hell of a time. Apart from the issue of enraged alums, there simply are too many other, better established players. And, however silly it seems, Randy Mac wouldn't even have its name to trade on, as there already is another Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

I gather from this letter by the President of Randy-Mac's Board of Trustees that the move is pretty much a done deal and that those opposed to it can go to blazes. I guess we'll see what happens.

(* Yes, I am of such background, age and temperment that I say "girls' school" instead of the more p.c. "womens' college". I was once nearly disembowelled by a Holyoke alum for it.)

Posted by Robert at September 4, 2006 08:46 AM | TrackBack

I get a distinct "Is Fawn Leibowitz here? -- I'm her fiancee" vibe about the place.

Posted by: The Colossus at September 4, 2006 10:03 AM

My eldest graduated from RMWC and is incensed at the change. Betrayed is actually a pretty good description of how she feels. This decision will actually make their financial problems worse. As an elite women's college they had something unique to offer and the alum love their school. RMWC, as an entity, goes away and all of that endowment and legacy money goes away too as the alums tell them, "I don't know who you are, you're not the school I went to." As an aside, I dated a girl from Skidmore, a women's school that went coed. She said the girls were pretty unimpressed with the type of guy who wants to go to a former women's college.

Posted by: Mike at September 4, 2006 11:17 AM

I attended a K-12 girls' school for five years. In my fourth year there, the school started admitting boys for the same reason. The place closed within ten years. The hoo-hah about "more than just a girls school" is tried every time, and the public doesn't buy it.

Posted by: Teri at September 4, 2006 01:08 PM

Given that many of the people who oppose integrating women's colleges are the same one who thought VMI was eeeeeevil for not allowing women, my response is: Wah.

Posted by: Memento Moron at September 5, 2006 12:46 AM

Yes, I am of such background, age and temperment that I say "girls' school" instead of the more p.c. "womens' college".

Good to know you are trying to be insulting instead of just making an unconscious mistake...

Posted by: LB buddy at September 5, 2006 07:50 AM

I have many a fond memory of visiting R-MWC back in the day. My first true love was a 1984 grad and my sister is a member of the class of 1988.

Posted by: LMC at September 5, 2006 08:12 AM

I suddenly feel like reading The Fall of the House of Usher.

Posted by: Memento Moron at September 5, 2006 10:28 PM

the biggest complain I've heard thus far is that the students actually may have to dress for class! Like all working women do each day- The school will be better for it, just as my school VMI supposedly is. My wife went to Hollins 81 and I still call them girls schools-it doesn't offend her. I joked with her today saying the scariest thing on earth is to go unannounced onto one of the girls schools during the middle of the week-egahd!

Posted by: ccw at September 10, 2006 06:39 PM