Deep Springs College, among the more unusual and academically rigorous colleges in the United States, has been debating for decades whether to admit women. And since its board voted in 2011 to do so, the college has been fighting off court challenges designed to keep the college as an institution for only 26 male students. But a new court ruling by a California judge -- if upheld -- may clear a path for the college to admit women.
Judge Dean T. Stout ruled that the L.L. Nunn Trust, which is named for Deep Springs' founder and supports the college, could change its mission from promoting "the education of promising young men" to "the education of promising young people."
Judge Stout based his 53-page ruling on a number of factors, including his view that Nunn had several purposes in founding Deep Springs, not just the education. Further, he said that the trustees pushing to admit women have strong reasons to do so that outweigh the value of preserving the college for men only.
Since its founding in 1917, the college has admitted very small classes of highly intelligent men, who take intense courses while managing both the college and its farm in an isolated spot in the High Desert of California. Students who complete the program are admitted as transfer students to some of the most competitive colleges in the country. All students receive a full scholarship (worth well over $50,000 a year).
The college regularly receives praise from those criticizing American higher education. For instance, the documentary "Ivory Tower" includes a shout-out to Deep Springs and the film's recent showing on CNN exposed Deep Springs to a new group of potential students and fans. (Deep Springs students have long been proponents of admitting women, as have some female would-be students who have wanted to apply.)
The ruling by Judge Stout came in a request by the majority of the Deep Springs board for permission to change the L.L. Nunn Trust and a motion by two trustees who voted against coeducation to block the change.
The ruling does not reject the idea that Nunn created Deep Springs for men only. But the ruling notes that some other parts of Nunn's original vision were abandoned long ago (for example, the inclusion of Christian religious instruction in the curriculum). And the ruling finds that Nunn was interested in a unique educational experience that would promote leadership and service by graduates. Coeducation would be a real change, Judge Stout writes, but not one that is inconsistent with much of what Nunn promoted when he created the trust.
Deep Springs College is one of five all-male colleges (excluding seminaries) and is the only one seeking to admit women. Two of the others are are closely linked to women's colleges located next door: Morehouse College (with Spelman College) and for Saint John's University of Minnesota (with the College of Saint Benedict). Two others do not have such relationships: Hampden-Sydney College and Wabash College.
"[E]ducation cannot be removed without destroying the purpose of the trust," the decision says. "The funds clearly could not be expended to open a shoe factory unless it was intended also to be an educational endeavor."
In what the decision calls a "weighing" process, the ruling says that the court could find little to justify maintaining the status quo. "The preponderance of evidence showed that the all-male restriction provides little social benefit to the male students and adds little value in general."
The decision cites evidence presented in favor of coeducation, such as the difficulty of attracting students and faculty (the latter male or female) who want to teach at an all-male college. During a brief period in which the college was considering female applicants (after the 2011 decision was announced but before court orders blocked coeducation), the college saw an increase in overall qualifications of applicants, as well as ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, not just gender diversity, according to data presented by the college.
Further, the judge cites the educational value of having women as students at Deep Springs. Citing evidence about limitations of male-only education, the judge's ruling says: "The perspectives which only female peers can contribute are necessary in order to create and provide the richest, well-rounded and beneficial educational experience."
A lawyer for the trustees who challenged the move to coeducation said via email that an appeal is planned. The lawyer's email stressed the importance of adhering to Nunn's wishes when he sent up the trust. "Deep Springs College was set up according to a deed of trust as an institution dedicated to 'the education of promising young men.' The law requires adherence to the terms of a charitable trust, and particularly to its stated purpose. This protects the objective of a trust, in this case, to provide a small college for men," the email said.
David Neidorf, president of Deep Springs, sent a letter over the long weekend to people affiliated with the college. He said that the admissions process for students to be admitted for the fall of 2015 is already far along, and that the class to be admitted will be men only. He acknowledged that an appeal was possible. But he expressed hope that the decision could be a key step toward the day Deep Springs can admit women.
"It has been a little over three years since the trustees voted to pursue a legal form of coeducation. Since then, coeducation at Deep Springs has seemed to me, because educationally better, inevitable in the long run," he wrote. "But from the start, everyone has wanted to know just how long that long run would be. We still don’t know. But speaking personally, I think it’s reasonable to hope that this decision will, in the end, have shaved a few years off the process."