There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. There are only four that are all male. But that is at least one too many, apparently. A California Appeals Court ruled last week that Deep Springs College, a school with only twenty-six students, may start admitting women.
Founded a century ago by industrialist L. L. Nunn, Deep Springs has long had an odd-ball education plan. Students get a rigorous liberal arts education while they are running a farm. They go to school for free and they are also part of the school’s management, helping to govern both its day-to-day operation and its finances. Deep Springs is a two-year college but its students are typically admitted as transfers to the best colleges in the country.
In 2011, the board of Deep Springs College voted to start admitting women, over the objection of many alumni. In the ensuing years the question of whether the board can blatantly violate the intent of its donor to promote “the education of promising young men” has remained an open one.
But now, apparently, it can. The Appeals Court determined that the trial court’s decision to let the school admit women was “supported by factual findings regarding the effects of the all-male admissions policy.” Obviously it is true that times have changed and Mr. Nunn might not have anticipated how the roles of women and men have changed.
But the notion that there is “compelling” evidence that the policy “reduces the quality of the applicant pool and of the resulting student body” is perfectly absurd. Each year, thousands of kids from the best high schools in the country kill to get into a good college. The notion that there are not twenty-six highly qualified men who would jump at the chance for a free education from which they would have a good shot at getting into an Ivy League school is crazy.
The trial court’s finding that the all-male policy “burden[s] and complicate[s] the tasks of hiring and retaining the highest quality faculty and staff” is equally silly. Perhaps they’ve failed to notice the thousands of college professors out there who are practically begging for jobs. (Maybe the trial court needs a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education.) Imagine if you offered them positions teaching some of the smartest young men in the country.
But the real problem with this decision is that it will fundamentally alter the education offered at Deep Springs. Yes, of course, going co-ed altered the education offered at Harvard and Princeton and Dartmouth. But the experience at Deep Springs was always going to be different. The school is isolated and so unlike other universities where students would always have dances and dates and social occasions with women, the men of Deep Springs were living a kind of monastic existence, albeit in a secular environment.
There are many more women’s colleges than men’s colleges because somehow everyone understands why a single-sex community for women is educationally useful. Why are men’s schools automatically suspect?
There is still a chance for the alumni to appeal the most recent ruling. If and when they do, they can note that women who want to attend Deep Springs may soon have another option.
A couple of years ago, some Deep Springs alumni started a women’s-only summer program modeled on the college. The Arete Project, based in North Carolina, has operated for two summers and is considering offering courses during the school year.
Good for them. Surely in our vast ecosystem of higher education, there is room for a few places that are a little bit different to flourish without facing lawsuits.