By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006
The board of trustees of Randolph-Macon Woman's College voted yesterday to admit men, even as students and alumnae chanted "Keep R-MWC a WC" outside.
Many students burst into tears or yelled as the announcement was made; some trustees were crying, too, said several people who were on the Lynchburg campus.
The interim president implored students not to turn their backs on the school as it goes coed beginning next fall. But many did just that, witnesses said, turning away from her. Hundreds of protesters marched with signs and T-shirts ("Better Dead Than Co-ed").
"You could just hear hearts breaking. I'll never forget that sound," said Sara Rechnitzer, a senior from Burke.
Carole Brand of Chevy Chase, Class of 1975, who had met with trustees Friday night to present an alternative plan, said she was stunned by the 25 to 2 vote. "I felt sick. And then I was angry," she said.
The decision to admit men is part of a plan that trustees believe is their best chance to save the 115-year-old school from eroding enrollment and financial problems. Since the 1960s, the college has lost students, with its retention rate falling to just over 60 percent.
Officials have had to dip into the endowment to keep the school running and to give scholarships and other financial aid to nearly all of the 712 students as incentives. National studies have shown that 3 percent of young women consider attending an all-female college.
Forty years ago, there were hundreds of women's college in the nation, but only about 60 remain. Hood College in Frederick made a similar decision in 2003.
Whatever the numbers, the decision yesterday was wrenching as women watched more than a century of history change with a single vote. The school will need a new name -- it can't just drop "Woman's College" because it could be confused with Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. -- so officials are asking for suggestions.
Under the plan approved by the board, the school will also increase its emphasis on its global honors program, Interim President Ginger Worden said, "with pretty dramatic changes, I think." And officials are considering selling off assets, including the valuable collection at the art museum.
In recent days, some alumnae, wondering why a school with a $140 million endowment needs to take such a drastic step, demanded financial documents and sent a letter from a law firm warning trustees to consider the legality of their decision. "In the heat of the emotion, people have made accusations about financial improprieties," Worden said. "Those are entirely baseless."
Trying to look forward while holding on to a favorite tradition, trustees wrote wishes for the school and tied them to the campus "poetry tree" after yesterday's vote. Worden said she is bracing for more protests.
One change had already begun: On Friday, the college got an application from a young man wanting to join the Class of '07.