Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, a liberal arts institution in Lynchburg, Va., is on the verge of admitting men. The college’s board of trustees is set to vote  Sept. 9 on a strategic plan that includes allowing men to enroll and expanding the global studies program.
Both Randolph-Macon's interim president and its board chairwoman said the college is moving forward with the proposal because of financial concerns -- and with sadness. A group of upset alumnae and students have voiced their concerns, primarily online.
The recommendation to admit men and emphasize a global curriculum came from the college's Strategic Planning Steering Committee last week. An outside research firm last November found that remaining a single-sex campus was not in Randolph-Macon's best financial interest.
“Our decision to embrace a coed environment is not because we think a women’s college isn’t a good form of education,” said Virginia Worden, interim president of Randolph-Macon. “We are proud of 115 years of being a women’s college, but we have come to a difficult conclusion that to attract more women, we need to attract men."
Declining enrollments and applicant pools have led an increasing number of women's colleges to consider coed arrangements in recent years -- and many of those that have decided to admit men have reported surges in enrollment.  A recent report  showed that students at women's college reported having better academic experiences than their counterparts at coed institutions.
Worden said the college hopes to grow its enrollment to 1,000 students, up from more than 700 in 2005-6. Jolley B. Christman, chairwomen of the board, said the college is giving financial aid at a rate that it cannot sustain, and that becoming more competitive would allow it to receive more of its tuition from students.
Louis Gallien, the husband of an alumna, said he doesn't understand the immediate need for action. He said members of the association want five more years to look at ways of keeping the college single-sex.
“Virginia doesn’t need another coed institution,” Gallien said. “It’s one of the most competitive markets in the country. What are you going to create that’s distinctive enough to make men want to come? What’s the rush?”
Worden said the rush is that the college has had to dip too frequently into its $140 million endowment, and that board members “can see the end of the straw.”
“If we postpone this decision, we might not have the resources to adopt this new coed proposal,” Christman said.
Worden said that fewer than 5 percent of college applicants are willing to look at a women’s college, and that most students “don’t come because, but in spite of, the fact that it’s a women’s college.
Faculty members met with the board last week to discuss the proposal and provide feedback. Worden said the faculty were supportive, and she didn’t sense “any resistance to the coed decision."
Amy R. Cohen, a classics professor and member of the faculty representatives committee, said the majority of her colleagues understand the financial realities and accept the plan, but are saddened by the possibility of becoming coed. “It’s a sad turn of events, but I really do see the challenges that we are facing, and it would be difficult for us to make what we offer appealing to young women in our current situation.”
Peter Sheldon, a physics professor and steering committee member, said the committee only began to consider the coed proposal last year. "We've been open during this processs, and thought we were keeping people informed," he said.
Added Worden: "There are people on campus who are coming back who feel they are blindsided. I think the board has been transparent."
But Gallien said many graduates feel left out of the process. He said some are planning to protest on campus and withhold gifts to the college. A Yahoo! group has formed in opposition to the coed proposal, and the alumnae association's board drafted a resolution that reaffirms the "mission to support (the college) in its commitment to providing an academically excellent education in a college for women."
Janis Ansell, president of the alumnae association, said she is supporting her constituency, “a majority of whom are disappointed.” Ansell, because of her position, is also on the board of trustees. She declined to say how she would vote in September. "I'm an alumna," she said," and I wish that we didn't need to make this decision."
Worden, the college's president, said 70 percent of the board are alumae, so the decision isn't going to be easy.
“I no longer feel as negative about the idea as I once did, as a radical women’s college lover,” she said. “There are positives, and we can still keep our close-knit community."