The board of Deep Springs College, an unusual and intellectually rigorous college in the high desert of California, voted in 2011 to admit women.
Students cheered the move. Faculty members agreed. So did many alumni, who have long felt there is no reason the college should remain all male. But a small group of alumni have fought in the courts to block the admission of women. This week, however, the college won a key victory that could smooth the path to coeducation. The California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a ruling by a three-judge panel on a lower court that the college had the legal right to admit women.
As is frequently the case when supreme courts decline to hear an appeal, there was no written explanation. But that leaves in place the unanimous April appeals court ruling on the issue.
The key finding of the appeals court was that the 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.
Deep Springs offers two years of instruction, with full scholarships, and has an enrollment of 26. Many of its graduates go on to some of the most competitive colleges in the country. The students govern many functions of the college, including its working ranch. Not only have the students been pushing for the admission of women, but potential female students regularly have been expressing interest.
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, with backing now from the appeals court, supporters of coeducation say it was the unique mix of a small, academically talented student body, intense educational experiences and running an isolated ranch that define what is really central to Deep Springs, not being all male.
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.
David Neidorf, president of Deep Springs, issued this statement: “We are very pleased that on the eve of Deep Springs’ centennial celebration, the California Supreme Court has let stand the lower court ruling in support of the trustees’ decision to admit women as students. We are very grateful to all those who devoted their time and support to achieve this result. There are legal loose ends ahead, and the board, staff and students of the college will need time to discuss the most deliberate and effective path to our coeducational future. The trustees of Deep Springs will issue a fuller public statement after the Fourth of July holiday."
Joseph C. Liburt, a lawyer for the Deep Springs alumni challenging coeducation, said via email that these alumni have been characterized unfairly. He said that it was the college's push to have the trust amended that prompted their activity. As to this week's news, he said, "The Supreme Court has unfortunately allowed the majority trustees to change a successful century-old trust to fit their own ideas. We are considering our next steps."