Tiny Mount Vernon College in Northwest Washington, which appeared to be on the brink of collapse six years ago, is riding the coattails of the women's movement to record enrollments and a new prosperity.
In 1973, enrollment at Mount Vernon, founded almost a century earlier as a finishing school, had fallen to 260, and some faculty members were convinced "the college was literally about to fold."
The school was trying to live down its image of a "rich girls' play school," and the trustees faced some critical decisions.
The first of those decisions was what to do about coeducation. At a time when many women's colleges were abandoning their single-sex status and admitting men, there was real concern, recalled trustee chairman Sally Nevius, that coeducation was the only road to survival for Mount Vernon.
In the end, that notion was rejected.
"We thought the women's colleges would have a renaissance and we were right," said Nevius, recalling the close vote six years ago that resulted in the decision to keep Mount Vernon as a women's college. "The board rejected the general premise that coeducation was necessary for the maintenance of the college.
"The pressure to go coed was coming from the admissions office. The prospective students being interviewed were saying, 'If you're not coed, you're not with the times.' But I believe that even if we had gone coed, we would not be getting the kind of male student our girls were looking for."
At the same time, the trustees faced the question of whether Mount Vernon should remain a two-year college or expand to a full four-year college with the ability to grant a bachelor's degree. Until then, only associate degrees were granted by the college.
After months of agonizing, the trustees voted to go ahead with the expansion program.
Now, six years later, those decisions have paid off handsomely.
Enrollment has more than doubled to 534 and the dormitories are once again full. An adult education program has been launched, which last year drew more than 1,800 students. From a modest beginning, the number of BA degrees granted annually has risen steadily to 62 last year. Career and job-related courses have been added to the curriculum. Government or business internships are required of all students. A debt of about $1 million is gradually being paid off. The budget is balanced and gifts to the school are up.
But the journey has not been without its troubles. Two years ago, the faculty, complaining of an authoritarian administration, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election to certify the American Association of University Professors as its bargaining agent. In a closely contested election, the AAUP won, but the college is contesting the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Victoria Schuck, president of the college, says she supports the concept of faculty unions in some circumstances but that "in this kind of a college, I should think that it should not be a substitute for collegial governance of the faculty."
With a Phi Beta Kappa key and a PhD from Stanford, Schuck came to Mount Vernon in August 1977, after 20 years as a political science professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, because "I was interested in working on a program that would meet the needs of women in the last quarter of the century."
She is committed, she says, to a program grounded in liberal arts but one that includes sufficient career and practical training to prepare graduates for the working world. Critics, however, argue she is not supportive of career-oriented education.
"She wants to make Mount Vernon into a Mount Holyoke on the Potomac," commented one person.Last month, the student newspaper at Mount Vernon said most students think Schuck wants to create a "Seven Sisters, invory tower intellectualism" at Mount Vernon.
"It is a false perception," asserts Schuck, adding that she makes no apologies for her association with Mount Holyoke or the Seven Sisters, a loose collection of colleges consisting of Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley. "The traditional liberal arts education is not the only way to develop the mind."
In a number of ways, the Mount Vernon experience reflects issues and tensions common throughout the higher education community. Disputes between liberal arts educators and those supporting career education exist on many campuses, although Schuck insists there is no real dispute at Mount Vernon. Over the last decade, faculty unionization has become an increasingly common issue and the AAUP estimates that about 25 percent of the college faculties in the U.S. now have some kind of collective bargaining agreement.
Beginning in the late 1960s, many women's colleges began to consider the wisdom of going coed, and many did so in the belief that women's colleges were headed the way of nickel coffee and dime beer. But the 97 colleges that refused to open their doors to male students have seen enrollment flourish in the last half of this decade.
At a time when most college enrollments have stabilized or begun to decline, the Women's College Coalition -- a Washington-based organization of 70 women's colleges -- reports its member institutions have recorded steady enrollment increases of 2 to 3 percent annually since 1975.
Many, like Mount Vernon, have tailored their curriculum specifically to meet the needs of women who plan to spend most of their lives working outside the home -- one-quarter of Mount Vernon's students major in business administration, for example. Those same institutions have attached themselves to the women's movement as champions of women's rights.
"The women's college is significant because it encourages greater intellectual confidence, a particular opportunity for the student to gain her won identity," said Schuck at her inauguration as Mount Vernon's sixth president last April. "It can contribute to the redefinition of woman and offers the best support services. It can remove for women the traditional barriers to leadership and provide her with role models of successful women and the support of her peers. It can foster the kind of environment which allows a woman to sort out her public and private goals...."
Founded in 1875 as a seminary for Washington's business and political leaders, Mount Vernon has evolved from a seminary that granted the equivalent of a high school diploma into a junior college and finally into a four-year institution. Since its founding, it has moved from two downtown locations -- first, a 31-acre site off Nebraska Avenue NW near Ward Circle that was taken over by the Navy during World War II, and then the second floor of Garfinkel's in Spring Valley -- to its present 26-acre site at Foxhall Road, Whitehaven Parkway and W Street NW.
Currently, its students come from 32 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 30 foreign countries. Ten percent of students are foreign 9 percent are members of minority groups. Its small size, its Washington location and the fact that it is a women's college at a time of rising women's consciousness are major drawing cards for many students.
"I wanted to go to a women's college. I've been taught by women teachers. They're supportive of us. They're not militant feminists, but they tell us, 'You girls are great. You can do anything you want.' I thought a small girls school would be fun, and it is," said Catherine Carroll, 22, a senior from Davenport, Iowa.
A public affairs and government major, Carroll spent her first two years of college at Mount Vernon, then transferred to the University of Iowa, where she intended to get her degree. A year later, she came back to Mount Vernon.
"Mount Vernon offered me a lot more than I could get out of a state university," said Carroll. "Too many students. I was a Social Security number. All my classes had 450 people in them."
Homeyra Taslimi, 20, a junior from Tehran, enrolled at Mount Vernon because "I feel more secure in a girls' school.... I wanted to be somewhere where I would be recognized, where I would fit in as an individual."
Lavern Jackson, a senior and president of the student body, says her four-years at Mount Vernon have more than equipped her for graduate school or work when she graduates this year with a major in business administration.
"I feel comfortable. I don't fee anxious," said Jackson, who grew up and went to high school in Alexandria. "I have alternatives. I am marketable. It doesn't scare me that the competition out there is tough. I've had a good education."
Although her own personal experience at Mount Vernon has been good, Jackson served on a student committee that found a majority of students polled were dissatisfied with the way the college is administered.
"We just wanted to find out where we were so we could meet with the administration and do something about it," said Jackson.
For her part, Schuck is not dismayed by those comments. "A certain amount of tension is healthy in any institution," she said.