Court: Deep Springs Can Admit Women

An unusually small and rigorous college has been trying to become coeducational since 2011. A California appeals court might make that possible.

April 17, 2017
 
Deep Springs College

A California appeals court ruled 3 to 0 last week that Deep Springs College, the smallest college in the United States and one of the most rigorous, may admit women.

The board of Deep Springs voted in 2011 to end its policy of admitting only men. But litigation from some alumni opposed to admitting women has held up the admission of women -- even as the student body, faculty members and many alumni have strongly backed the switch.

Deep Springs is a two-year college in the high desert of California with an enrollment of 26 and an unusual curriculum and history. But the focus of the legal fight has been less on the merits of single-sex education than on an issue that affects many colleges of all types: the circumstances under which a trust that sets up a program may be changed.

The alumni who challenged coeducation have argued that L. L. Nunn, the industrialist and educational thinker who founded Deep Springs in 1917, wanted to educate only men. And there are references in the trust documents to a mission of educating men.

But the college's leaders have argued that the unique style of education is the true mission of the college, not educating only men. The college has admitted very small classes of highly intelligent men, who take intense courses while managing both the college and its farm. 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.

There are only a few other all-male colleges (besides seminaries) left in the country: Hampden-Sydney, Morehouse and Wabash Colleges and Saint John's University in Minnesota. Morehouse and Saint John's have close relationships with adjacent women's colleges. All the all-male colleges, except Deep Springs, want to remain that way.

The California appeals court noted that Deep Springs has in fact already changed in ways that deviated from Nunn's original vision. For instance, Nunn promoted religious instruction, which was dropped early in the college's history. Further, while Nunn advocated that students should govern themselves in their dormitory, the college now involves students in managing all aspects of college operations, giving students a managerial role -- including oversight of admissions and participation in the hiring and oversight of faculty members and administrators -- that is far beyond what Nunn envisioned or the norm in higher education.

The key finding of the appeals court was that a lower court had been within its discretion to approve a change in the trust guidelines for the college from promoting "the education of promising young men" to "the education of promising young people." There was no evidence, the appeals court said, that the lower court had exceeded its authority to determine which trust provisions were "administrative" (such as the reference to men) and which ones were focused on the central mission of the college (the overall approach). The lower court also noted arguments that admitting women would help Deep Springs advance its mission in that some prospective students and faculty members (male and female alike) won't consider a single-sex institution.

It remains unclear if last week's ruling will end the litigation. Those challenging coeducation and their lawyers could not be reached for comment.

Dave Hitz, the chair of the Deep Springs board, sent this statement to those affiliated with the college: "I am happy to announce that the appeals court ruled in favor of coeducation at Deep Springs. All three justices agreed. What does this mean? Is the lawsuit done? That depends. Until May 23, 2017, the objectors have the right to petition the California Supreme Court for review. If they do, we don't know if the court will accept the case for consideration or not. Never trust predictions about the legal system. Delays are common. Decisions can be overturned. That said, the trustees remain hopeful. This ruling is an important step toward a coeducational Deep Springs."

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