When Eric-John Tate, then a high school senior from Norwich, Conn., received a recruitment e-mail earlier this year from Randolph College, formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, he thought it was a joke.
A woman’s college wanted him to apply? But by the third message from Randolph, Tate took notice. This fall, he will be one of about 70 men to enroll in the historically single-sex institution, which last year voted to admit men  for the first time in its 115 years.
Tate said being among the first to change the campus was a motivating factor in his college decision. It will also likely define him in the eyes of critics who still believe coeducation wasn’t the best decision for Randolph.
“I will be dealing with upperclasswomen who felt that their contract with the college has been violated,” he said. “Do I expect backlash? Yes, I do, and I pity those who participate … it’s not my fault that Randolph asked me to apply and accepted me.”
Tate is entering into what remains a politically charged environment at the Lynchburg, Va., campus. The college, whose endowment has dipped substantially , continues to embrace its new recruitment strategy as the first step toward financial recovery. Upset alumnae and former faculty say if not for years of fiscal mismanagement, Randolph would never have had to consider coeducation and the sale of its prized art. Some of the most vocal critics hold out hope -- however fleeting -- that the institution will soon return to being single sex.
Over the summer, a number of developments kept the controversy brewing. The associate director of the college's Maier Museum of Art  resigned in protest of plans under consideration by the college to sell some of the art in order to boost its endowment. The college's accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, has put Randolph on warning as it looks into, among other things, its spending rate. SACS is conducting another review in December, and the college sees leveraging the collection as one possible way to ensure more financial stability.
The college began legal proceedings  in Lynchburg Circuit Court this week to determine whether it can share or sell millions of dollars worth of art that was acquired with funds from a 1928 trust intended to form a permanent art collection. Randolph's interim president is saying the action does not mean that the college has made a decision about the sale. But even the mention of an art sale has galvanized critics of the university's recent moves, who say such a decision would be nearsighted and unethical. Charlotte Stern, a former professor of Romance languages at Randolph, said the art is "the one thing left that gives the college any distinction. To sell that off would be the ultimate disaster."
Also over the summer:
- Randolph announced that it was reducing its staff by 30 to 35 people – or about 15 percent of its positions -- as part of a reorganization. No faculty jobs were cut.
- The Virginia Supreme Court declined an appeal from students at Randolph over its decision to admit men. The group said the college breached a contract with students when its governing board decided to go co-ed. A petition for rehearing has been filed.
- Amid the controversy, Randolph is welcoming a new president, John E. Klein, the former executive vice chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and a former business executive. The past two full-time presidents had been female.
A Minority, But Still a Presence
Come Monday, when classes begin at Randolph, more than 1 in 10 students will be male. That's 61 incoming freshmen (of a class of 185) and a handful of transfers out of an expected 665 students overall. In the 1960s, that total was regularly above 800, and the college's financial plan calls eventually for 1,000 students. [Note: this paragraph has been changed to correct an enrollment error from an earlier version.]
For the first year of male recruitment, college officials say they are pleased. “We’re really excited that so many men have found Randolph College so appealing,” says Brenda Edson, Randolph’s spokeswoman, in an e-mail. “We were told that having 20 percent of the class male would be a good year, and we’ve far exceeded that."
Edson says the turmoil over going co-ed, the name change, and the subsequent late start on recruiting drove down the number of new students they could expect. While the first-year enrollment of 185 is about the same as last year, the college has been able to increase its net tuition revenue, according to the university. This year’s first-year class will bring in an estimated $680,000 more net revenue than the previous class.
That's because after years of increasing scholarships and other financial aid to keep a flat level of enrollment, Edson said the discount for the average student has dropped. And she emphasized that no special discounts or other enticements were offered to students because they are male. (Tate, the first-year student, said a financial package was one of the reasons he decided to attend.)
For the most part, Edson says the men reported that they decided on Randolph for reasons the college has heard for years, including small classes and faculty-to-student ratios. “I think this year, many are excited about being pioneers," she says. "Those who are interested in athletics say they are glad to be a part of building our first men’s teams."
Randolph has included in its orientation a session on how to deal with a transition to coeducation. Edson said for the program, the college took advice from other institutions that recently have made the move. Randolph is also pointing to those colleges' success in boosting their enrollments as a model to follow. For instance, Wells College, which first admitted men in 2005 after years of faltering enrollment, and amid protests and legal threats from students and alumnae, has seen enrollment gains. Prior to the decision to go co-ed, the institution had about 400 students. That total has risen to 574, with about 75 percent being female.
This year's freshman class includes 181 students, and along with 43 transfers, Wells is welcoming the largest number of students to campus since the early 1970s, according to Ann S. Rollo, a college spokeswoman. Wells' acceptance rate is just under 60 percent for men and just over that amount for women, and Rollo says the college hasn't changed its academic standards.
At the heart of the coeducation debate is the issue of whether there are enough women interested in single-sex education. Randolph College trustees concluded that the answer there was 'no,' and Rollo says she still believes that was the case at Wells. Many of Randolph's alumnae argue vehemently that a healthy women's college can still attract students -- a sentiment articulated  by the remaining single-sex institutions.
David W. Strauss, a principal of the Art and Science Group, a firm that advises colleges on marketing and enrollment strategies, told Inside Higher Ed in 2005 that “there’s no question that most college-bound women these days prefer a coed institution. But he also cautioned women’s colleges from reading too much into the success of their former peers that are admitting men.
“The mistake many institutions make going coed is that they assume that by admitting men, the floodgates will be opened,” he said in that interview. "And even if the floodgates open for a few years, the larger question is 'can you sustain it over time?' ”
Critics Remain Unmoved
Those who are frustrated with Randolph's new direction continue their attacks on administrators and trustees, saying both have turned their backs on loyal donors, alumnae and current students. They maintain that the college hasn't been forthcoming, starting with its announcement of a coeducation vote last summer and continuing with what many feel has been a closed-door process to determine whether to sell the art collection.
Critics are urging -- with apparent success -- that donors withhold their gifts to the college. Randolph's annual fund for 2005-6 raised $2,995,322, while this year’s annual fund totaled $2,184,386. That’s down 27 percent. Edson says the drop in donations was "entirely expected," and that even though the college is saddened by the loss of donors for now, officials "understand their reasons." She adds that, like admissions, Randolph got a late start to fund raising.
Angered alumnae are still recommending that those who want their voice heard write letters to trustees and administrators asking them to rethink their co-ed decision. Some are posting on a Web site  hosted by a nonprofit corporation founded last fall to pursue all avenues to preserve single-sex education at Randolph. (The entity is funding ongoing litigation against Randolph.)
Some critics of the college's recent moves remain optimistic that a prolonged campaign against coeducation there can turn the tide. Stern, the former professor, wrote an open letter  to administrators and trustees saying that "the administration would have use believe that R-MWC is gone and Randolph College is up and running, so it is too late to reclaim our college. We don't believe it. We consider the academic year 2007-8 an unfortunate hiatus in the history of R-MWC."
Stern says she hasn't heard an official response from the college. There are mounting reasons why the college should reconsider its co-ed move, she adds. "The college is pinched for money, and it is doing things that are detrimental to the program. These are all indications that things aren't going well."
Among the other complaints from Stern and others: Randolph isn't spending its money wisely. Stern says the college has used expensive methods of recruiting and has not targeted the right students. (The 120-plus total of first-year women, she says, is a sign that women aren't taking to the co-ed model.)
Edson says the recruitment process is similar to prior years, utilizing direct mail, e-mail, phone calls, teleconferencing and other methods. The college is confident it's using resources efficiently, she says. "There are some expenditures, especially those relating to admissions, recruitment and retention that are certainly justifiable. We have made many hard decisions this year, and have made many changes in an effort to immediately address the concerns raised by SACS," she says in the e-mail.
Stern acknowledges an increase in applications this year but says that has more to do with students' ability to apply many places on the Internet than with a growing interest in the college.
Tate says he's surprised at how many men are enrolled at Randolph this fall. His expectation for future years? Still a college that's overwhelmingly female.