The future of another women’s college
By Sheryl McAlister
I’m trying to wrap my brain around what I’m feeling at the moment about a recent announcement made by my alma mater, Columbia College.
The school has carried the distinction of being a women’s college for its 166 years of existence – until now. The announcement read that the Board of Trustees has decided to admit male students as a “component of the residential day program, starting in fall 2021, in an effort to increase enrollment.”
The announcement went on to say that “while the co-ed model was being developed … an underlying theme remains clear – the need to maximize and preserve our historical women’s education.”
These well-intentioned folks have just recommended a growth strategy that forever alters the DNA of this institution. They also have committed to preserving the way it used to be.
How’s that going to work, exactly?
I can’t process my feelings here. It’s not a change thing. It’s not a feminist thing. It’s not an anti-business thing. It’s not an anti-male thing.
What I know is that this place means so much to me personally. It has meant so much to so many women for more than a century and a half. And while men have attended classes and earned degrees at the school, they did so as grad students or non-traditional undergraduate students. Not as full-time residents, living in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria, participating in all the traditions of life on campus.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for single gender schools and plenty of arguments some might make against them. And more than a few reports indicate that both boys and girls thrive in single gender academic environments.
I know that has been true for this college. For those of us who have experienced Columbia College as students, the connection is felt deep in our bones. The experience at the school helped so many of us “find our way,” as renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said. O’Keeffe spent some time on the Columbia College campus in the early 1900s as an artist and teacher. She is reported as saying it is where she came into her own as an artist and as a woman.
If we lose the special-ness that is part of the women’s college experience, will history remember Lucille Godbold, affectionately known as Miss Ludy? Born in 1900, Miss Ludy was one of the first American female Olympians and an international track and field star. She also taught at the college for more than 50 years.
Will history remember the female students who fought for the right for women to vote?
Will women’s voices still be heard in an environment that no longer looks like the one they signed up for? Will women still find the encouragement to boldly jump into the conversation, without risk of being silenced?
College is not the real world where business is conducted mostly where the mighty and powerful are present. College is not the place where a woman’s – or a man’s – voice should be silenced. It’s the place where young people should feel free to find their own voices and learn to make their own way in life.
Sometimes it’s safer – literally and figuratively — to learn that in a place that’s single gender.
Make no mistake. This is not an equality issue. This is a money issue.
I realize the survival of the college is at stake. And I’ve heard this president has worked hard to fix a lot of issues caused before she ever arrived on campus. Intellectually, I get it that these folks have considered every conceivable option before resorting to the residential, co-ed route. I respect they didn’t come to this decision quickly or easily. That they saw fit to include the strong language about the commitment to the history of women is a nod to that consideration.
I don’t have an alternative to this option, I guess. Although I might have considered selling the school to a larger university and allowing it to operate with some autonomy under the ballast of a larger, more financially stable institution.
Ultimately, I’m not sure any wild idea will sit well with me as an alumna or as a nearly 40-year volunteer. But at the end of the day, I love this place, and I always will. That’s why my heart is heavy.
My advice to those in charge … listen to those of us who are still around and have something to say. Former students and faculty. Really listen.
And, please, don’t screw this up.
Copyright © Sheryl McAlister
Photograph courtesy of Columbia College.