In its first decade of coeducation, little Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg has been through more identity crises than a first-semester freshman.
No longer an all-women's school, no longer the sister school to the University of Virginia, no longer trying to shed its feminine name, Mary Washington, which celebrated its 75th anniversary Monday, should be heaving a sigh of relief at having negotiated with relative ease the difficult passage from a state-funded women's enclave to a public coed college.
Today, 700 hundred of the college's 2,800 students are men, and that number is growing. The school's catalogue prominently features men, and college officials try to refer to the school by its androgynous initials. Admissions have been up for the past four years.
And, if that weren't enough, last year Mary Washington was named by Changing Times magazine as one of the 50 best bargains in higher education the in nation: a private school environment at a public school price.
But coeducation has its critics here.
Take Jennifer Kirby and at least a dozen of her cohorts on the fifth floor of Randolph dormitory, for instance:
"If I had it my way we'd go back to being all-girls," says Kirby wistfully. Instead of improving social life, Kirby and other women say, coeducation has made it worse by effectively removing Mary Washington from the time-honored road map that has linked Virginia's single-sex colleges on Friday and Saturday nights since the first Mary Washington girl gave up her bustle for bloomers.
Men from such bastions of Southern manhood as Virginia Military Institute, Washington and Lee and the University of Virginia (now itself coeducational after a Supreme Court ruling that opened all but a few of the state's schools to both sexes) no longer can be relied upon to come calling.
"The school misleads you. They make you think that guys from other schools roll up here all the time," says Kirby. "They don't, because they think we've got guys here, so instead they go to Hollins or Sweetbriar or Mary Baldwin"--private women's colleges elsewhere in the state.
"Nobody comes here!" groans Kirby's roommate, Susan George. "The last time some guys from another school came here for a party, our guys threw eggs at them! Can you believe it? It was so embarrassing."
On the other hand, the men in this year's freshman class, 25 percent of which is male, are a bit more sanguine and chalk most of the criticisms off to the perils of pioneering.
"Freshmen women," says Kris Kabza, "don't give us a chance. The ratio is 1 man to 3 women here and a lot of the girls hold it against us. The upperclass women definitely treat you more like a human being."
But what Mary Washington may or may not lack in weekend social life, depending on your point of view, students say, it makes up for in other ways--not the least of which is its price tag.
MWC is cheaper than the University of Virginia and James Madison University, which also celebrates its 75th anniversary this week, too. Both U. Va., as it is called, and James Madison are also on Changing Times' list of the nation's 50 best college bargains.
For someone like Mary Jane Evans of Newington, Mary Washington's $4,424 fee for state residents (it is $5,556 for out-of-state students) means that she can afford to attend college away from home.
"I was real concerned about the cost," she says. "There are five children in my family, and I'm paying for college myself. If I hadn't found this place, I don't know where I would have gone or how I would have paid for it."
While opening its white-columned heart to men, as well as new courses in subjects like computers and business, Mary Washington has made a conscious effort to preserve its Southern charms. The daytime student uniform may be blue jeans and color-coordinated sweatsuits, but the school still has at least two formal balls a year, sometimes more, commemorating one thing or another.
Visiting hours in dormitories are restricted, and male guests must be signed in and out of dorms--and are evicted perforce by 2 a.m.
The students recently voted to approve 24-hour visitation in the college's two coed dorms, but that isn't expected to halt the ritual weekend exodus of students seeking social life elsewhere.
Keeping one foot in the modern world while the other rests comfortably in a more graceful time displeases some as it draws others, however.
"It's like a prep school," complains freshman Ann Hurburt.
On the Friday afternoon of the 75th anniversary weekend, the dormitory halls resounded with the sounds of suitcases being snapped shut as the weekend flight began.
" 'Working for the weekend,' that's our theme," says freshman Mary Tuttle, echoing a recent headline in the student newspaper that reported the suitcase-college phenomenon in which students flee campus on weekends.
"Everyone leaves. It's dead here on weekends. I know a lot of people who are planning on transferring," says Teresa Darden.
But for those who enjoy the quiet weekends, the college is a haven. "I feel safe here," says sophomore Evans.
College officials and many students say it is the combination of quiet and small liberal arts that has boosted applications for admission every year. That increase comes at a time when competition among colleges for students has never been keener. One alumna says that Mary Washington has never been closer to losing its reputation as the "best-kept secret on the East Coast."
Though an unscientific poll of 15 freshmen women on a recent Friday turned up 13 who said they plan on transferring, college officials say most women are happy at the school. The number of students seeking transfer admission is at a record high, according to H. Conrad Warlick, vice president of admissions.
"Walk into a high school today and kids look different," explains Warlick. "Parents and students today are attracted to us because we are different, because we offer a more a restrained environment, because we don't treat residence halls as merely a place to sleep. And we do it for a better price than anyone."
Unlike their harried colleagues at larger state schools, the college's professors distribute syllabi with home phone numbers and offers of after-class help. Complaints from underclassmen about everything from social life to overcrowded computer courses are growing pains the college expects to outlast.
"Our biggest obstacle," says acting college president William M. Anderson, "is that the man on the street still thinks of us as a female, private institution."
As MWC convinces more men on the street to become big men on campus, that's changing. And that's not the only thing.
"The girls are getting used to us," says freshman Rex Tugwell. "Talk to the guys who have girlfriends."