"THERE ARE," says the 14th president of Wells College, "opportunities for geothermal sources, but we are waiting to see what happens with the gas well we'll have hooked up by the end of the month. We know from studies it will take three or four wells to make a serious impact on our energy needs." A smile, a bit of seafood salad, and she continues. "There is a shelf of rock almost one mile underground that is very hot and if we could force water through it . . ."
It they could force water through it, they could reduce energy costs significantly and it would be one more adventurous step Dr. Patti McGill Peterson would have taken to ensure the survival of one of the finer women's colleges in the United States.
Founded by Henry Wells of Wells Fargo fame, Wells is located on Lake Cayuga in upstate New York, a region with a history of natural gas findings at the turn of the century.Wells has a student body of 500, and tuition costs this year are $7,300, far below the actual cost of educating its students. Facing inflation problems common to many small liberal arts colleges, Peterson seized upon a feasibility study initiated by her predecessor, Texan Sissy Farenthold, that predicted a 75 percent chance of finding natural gas on the 360-acre college campus, "I'm not a gambler," Peterson said the other day, "but I thought those were awful good odds."
She raised $120,000 from alumni and hired drillers and, one night after four anxious weeks, a lighted piece of paper held over the well sparked flames. "We knew we had something." What they have won't be certain until the well is hooked up, but it is at least a moderate sized well, capable of saving the school anywhere from $40,000 on up a year in energy costs, probably for 10 years, maybe for more. "Rugged individualism," praised the letters that poured into the college after the coup became known, and the impact of Wells' creative approach to energy problems on the image of women's colleges is not lost on Peterson.
"I think it's important a women's college has done it," she says. "If one can break that nice Alice-sit-by-the-fire sort of stereotype. . ." At 36, Peterson knows something about stereotypes. She is of the generation of women that still got turned down for full scholarships in graduate school because she was a woman. "We couldn't risk that kind of money on a woman," the college professor would later explain to her after three scotches. And she is "absolutely devoted" to the idea of women being able to obtain higher education in a single-sex institution. "A small women's college can give the opportunity to come forward and say what's on your mind without social inhibitions."
Research on women achievers, she says, shows that twice as many attended women's colleges as coeducational institutions.That's a statistic that impresses her, along with what she saw attending and teaching in large universities. "What was extremely frustrating was having bright young women sitting there mum and having the discussion pattern set by men and then afterwards they would come up and say, well, if we went at the problem this way . . ."
Ninety percent of the college yearbook editors are men, she says. Women's colleges offer women more leadership opportunities than they would find at coeducational institutions. Wells is part of a five-college consortium to encourage women to enter politics. "If anyone is going to put sailboats into the lake in the springtime, it's going to be women. If anyone's going to run the student government and the student newspaper, it's going to be women. There is no deferring to the other sex."
Women's colleges, she believes, have a special opportunity and a special obligation. "First, we have to give them a really solid education and second, we have to give them the confidence to go along with it. The issue of confidence is so important to success -- the ability to look someone in the eye and say, look, I can do it. Give me a chance."
Peterson holds a PhD in political science and educational policy and has held teaching and top administrative posts at the State University in Oswego as well as other institutions. She is married to a college professor and the mother of a 7-year-old son.
When she became president of Wells last August, she was struck by the seriousness of purpose in the students, and the need to prepare them for the juggling of family and job that is a reality in the world they will enter. "Young women have to address those things. The research says that by and large it's the young women who have to worry about day care, getting the kids to and from it. I want them to be looking at this and not romanticizing it. They have a tendency to do that with me."
"You can do it," she says, "but I also take Stresstabs."
Peterson is a model for young women, as are the other female administrators of the school. She's a model of someone who is willing to take risks -- eyeing everything from underground rock shelves to the breeze off the lake and the possibility of windmills. She is bold, attractive, bright, funny. And committed. As she goes about the job of cutting costs and raising funds and installing solar panels in the college swimming pool, she does so not just to preserve a women's school, but to preserve a system that produces leaders.