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Why We Had No Choice but to Go Coed

Sunday, September 17, 2006

When Randolph-Macon Woman's College was founded in 1891, women were not permitted to attend college with men. The founder, William Smith, created the institution to be "a college where our young women may obtain an education equal to that given in our best colleges for young men and under environments in harmony with the highest ideals of womanhood."

Today, the college is embarking on a new future, one that will include men. Yet that original mission, that dedication to women's values and education, remains.

The fact of the marketplace is that only 3 percent of college-age women say they will consider a women's college. The majority of our own students say they weren't looking for a single-sex college specifically. Most come despite the fact that we are a single-sex college.

Our enrollment problems are not going away, and we compete with both coed and single-sex schools. Of the top 10 colleges to which our applicants also apply, seven are coed. Virtually all who transfer from R-MWC do so to a coed school.

These market factors affect our financial realities. We must offer more aid to attract students, and we are using a large portion of our endowment each year to balance our budget.

This decision to admit men was not an easy one for the college's trustees, 70 percent of whom are alumnae. Nor has it been easy on our students or alumnae. That we must change our name to avoid conflicting with Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., also has been hard for everyone involved.

The Sept. 9 vote was not made in haste or behind closed doors. Plagued by declining enrollments since the 1970s, the board has spent 15 years revamping marketing efforts and exploring every possible solution to keep the college competitive -- and single-sex. The intensive three-year strategic planning process that culminated in the vote included open dialogue among our constituents about the possibility of going coed.

This vote for coeducation is not a vote against women's education. Instead, it is a vote to ensure that this institution continues to make a difference in the lives of women -- without lowering academic standards. Years of research and intensive study have shown us that, without taking these drastic actions, we would be allowing our beloved institution to wither and die. That would be unconscionable.

R-MWC is about more than a single-sex education. With 712 students from 47 countries and 45 states, the college has a magic that comes from its small classes, the close relationships between faculty and students, the academic rigor, and the diversity and international emphasis that are integrated throughout the campus.

These elements will not change because men walk through our doors. The challenge for higher education is to create an environment in which men and women respect one another in all aspects of diversity, including gender. This is a natural step for R-MWC, but it is bittersweet, as loss accompanies change. Nevertheless, the opportunities brought by this new direction give us strong cause to celebrate as we claim a distinguished future for our college.

-- Jolley Bruce Christman

Philadelphia

The writer is president of the Randolph-Macon Woman's College board of trustees.

-- Virginia Worden

Lynchburg, Va .

The writer is the college's interim president .

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