Coed Vote Brings Legal, Financial Repercussions

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

The decision last month by Randolph-Macon Woman's College to open the small, all-female campus in Lynchburg to men has already caused a dip in fundraising and prompted at least one lawsuit, the head of the board of trustees said yesterday.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of nine current students, argues that Randolph-Macon breached its contract with students who believe they enrolled on the promise that the school would remain single-sex for the duration of their educations.

Trustees President Jolley Bruce Christman, a 1969 graduate of Randolph-Macon, wouldn't comment on the suit but said there has been a drop in contributions to the college alongside increasingly organized protests since the board's Sept. 9 decision to go coed next fall.

The lawsuit is the work of Preserve Educational Choice, a well-funded group of students, alumnae, faculty and former trustees seeking a reversal of that vote. The group had hoped to make the case for a new vote during a three-day trustees meeting that ended yesterday, but the board went home without inviting opponents to speak and without reconsidering its decision.

"This is the most viable way to keep this college open and vibrant," Christman said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"After very careful review and an enormous amount of information -- really, a three-year research and planning process -- I came to the conclusion reluctantly but still came to the conclusion, as did so many other trustees, that this was the best option for our college."

Randolph-Macon enjoys a healthy endowment, about $140 million, for its small size. But the liberal arts college, nestled near the Blue Ridge Mountains about 115 miles west of Richmond, has steadily lost enrollment in recent years, Christman said. Today, 715 women attend Randolph-Macon, she said, and the college is spending more than 5 percent of its endowment each year to meet costs.

Opponents, led by Ellen Reid Smith of Preserve Educational Choice, say the college has other ways to improve its financial outlook. They believe that Randolph-Macon discounts too many students' tuition and dispute claims that enrollment is declining. They also believe that trustees rushed into the decision to go coed (trustees were first told of the idea in June).

And they believe going coed will doom the college. Smith cited a campus poll, conducted by alumnae, in which 48 percent of students said they would transfer, or were considering doing so, if the college allows men next year. Ending Randolph-Macon's all-female tradition would eliminate the reason most students choose it, she said.

"The experience at Randolph-Macon to alumnae was only possible because it is a women's college," said Smith, a 1983 graduate who lives in Austin. "When we went there, no doors were locked, no tests were protected. There was an unbelievable honor code. That's gone now."

Smith said she has raised more than $100,000 from like-minded alumnae and former trustees to finance legal action. The group paid for one lawsuit that has been filed on behalf of students and is prepared to file more, she said. It has letters of support from two past presidents of the college. And it has established a Web site, http://preserveeducationalchoice.org , loaded with documents and updates on the effort.

The college has launched its own campaign. Trustees are in the midst of a 15-city tour to meet with alumnae to make their case for going coed. And they have established various committees, with student and faculty as members, to implement the transition.

"It seems like no matter how many lawsuits we file, they won't change their vote," Smith said.

"You have to ask why. Why? I don't know the answer why. I am fighting to try to figure this out."

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