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Rebellion Over Coeducation Plan

September 6, 2006

The voices of discontent sounded shortly after Randolph-Macon Woman’s College announced this summer that its board would vote Sept. 9 on a plan to allow men into the 115-year-old institution.

As of Tuesday evening, nearly 500 people -- both alumnae and donors -- had signed an online petition calling on trustees to either disclose a range of financial documents or delay the vote until more information is available to the public. Many who oppose the coed plan are wondering aloud whether poor financial management of the college -- and not a changing market for women's colleges -- is behind the move to admit men.

Students and some alumnae planned Wednesday to protest the plan on campus. On Friday, board members are scheduled to meet with alumnae before making a final decision. The Coalition to Preserve Women’s Education, a group of student leaders, alumnae and friends, has primarily represented the opposition in meetings with trustees and administrators.

"They've tried to sidestep around it, but everyone understands that their meaning is to go coed," said Erin Briggs, the coalition group's press contact.

The petition, which was posted Friday on a Web site not affiliated with the university, asks for:

  • Audits for the past seven years.
  • All minutes and agendas for board meetings for the past three years.
  • A list of all contracts that directly or indirectly benefit board members, their families or associates.
  • An accounting of investments that led to the loss of $52 million of the value of the endowment.
  • All other financial documents used in the development of the strategic plan (that calls for a coed college and an expanded global studies program).

Susan Alexander Thompson, a 1994 alumna who wrote the petition, said the document has been sent to Jolley B. Christman, president of the board, and other trustees. A university spokeswoman said as of early Tuesday that board members had not received the petition and thus had no comment. Virginia Worden, Randolph-Macon's interim president, also said she hasn't seen the document.

“The board's fiscal history raises serious questions among alumnae and donors,” the petition reads. "The board-managed endowment lost $52 million during a period when other, similar institutions saw a significant increase in their endowment returns.”

Thompson said those who signed the petition want to know what data led some university officials and trustees to the conclusion that becoming a coeducational institution was the best way out of financial trouble. An outside consulting firm made that recommendation late last year. Citing financial concerns, both Worden and Christman said last month that they regretfully agreed that the university had to move ahead with the plan. Some alumnae have blamed investment decisions on the dwindling endowment, which is now around $140 million.

Worden said publicly audited statements are available, and that the college has been as transparent as possible during the college's three-year look into its future. "We’re certainly not trying to hide anything from our constituency," she said. "We care very much about those who aren't happy, even if we can't listen to 13,000 people [Randoph-Macon's alumnae base]. To the extent to which we haven't satisfied everyone's need for a response, we're deeply sorry."

In a letter sent to alumnae and students late last week, Christman said the college has struggled with enrollment issues for years. By admitting men, the college hopes to grow its enrollment to 1,000 students -- up from more than 700 in 2005-6. In the 1960s, well over 800 students enrolled.  

“Our hopes, at different points in time, were that young women would change their minds and return to women’s colleges, that we could continue the course by growing our endowment fast enough to compensate for the loss of students," the letter reads. "It is heartbreaking to hear that many alums and students feel that we are turning our backs on you —not letting you have an opportunity to have a go at these problems.”

Thompson, the petition author, said she has seen no real evidence of trustees wanting to discuss matters with alumnae. Mary Jean Wellford Lindner, a 1948 Randolph-Macon graduate and former trustee, said the talks of a coed campus took her "completely by surprise," and that details of the plan aren't clear to her or other alumnae.
 
“We haven’t had things explained to us,” she said. “No one has seen a business plan. If I were a young person, I wouldn’t know what I was applying to."

Maria Childress, who attended but did not graduate from Randolph-Macon, said she isn’t surprised to see hundreds of alumnae signing the petition. She said the institution is “turning into a new college that no longer is what it has been for hundreds of years."

Sagging enrollments and applicant pools have led a number of women’s colleges to mull coed options in recent years, with many reporting surging enrollments after deciding to admit men.

Regis College, outside Boston, announced last week that it is going coed starting in fall 2007. The college already admits men to its graduate programs and adult classes. As part of the plan, Regis also is establishing a two-school model -- a School of Arts and Sciences and a School of Nursing and Health Professions.

Regis President Mary Jane England, a 1959 alumna, said under the financial model that includes male students, the college should be in the black within the next five years. England said the college couldn't continue to lose money with an endowment of $18 million.

England and faculty council member Susan Tammaro said professors have been pushing to go coed for decades. England said while some of the younger alumnae are against a coed arrangement, most graduates she spoke with supported the move.

“We are delighted with the decision,” said Tammaro, an associate professor of psychology. “We have loved the tradition and valued the woman’s college but feel like the time is right to be a coed institution.”

 

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