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Single-Gender Colleges: Roads Less Traveled

Institutional Culture

Single-Gender Colleges: Roads Less Traveled

Single-Gender Colleges

“If you don’t know where you are going,

you’ll end up somewhere else.”

Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra said a lot of stupid things that had a ring of truth about them, such as “Even the future ain’t what it used to be,” “You can observe a lot just by watching,” and “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.” Such sayings come to mind as I reflect on my 50-plus years of observing trends and issues in higher education, especially the last 46 years as a professor, dean, provost, and senior vice president at Converse College, a women’s college in South Carolina. What truth is there in what educational prophets predict? Educational prophets have not always seen the future clearly, of course, and I am no doubt among that myopic crowd of prognosticators. It is difficult to discern the uncertain future of single-gender colleges in the 21st century, but I hope that some of my observations are at least half-true. It is not always easy to know “where you are going.” First, a few observations on where single-gender institutions have been since Harvard College opened its doors to men in 1636.

All of the colleges and universities in the American colonies were established to educate only men. Women were routinely considered less worthy as “college material” and more valued for their domestic roles in family life. So-called dame schools, along with female seminaries, were established in every colony and were dedicated to upper-class young women. Unlike men’s colleges, these institutions focused on ladylike skills and duties—preparation for their roles as wives and mothers with some courses in the arts—rather than substantive academic preparation.

Mississippi College University for Women, established in 1884, was the first public institution designed to meet the educational needs of women. Public institutions had admitted women for several decades before that, but public institutions like the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel in South Carolina maintained their all-male policy until forced by the US Supreme Court in the mid-1990s to admit women following a 1990 discrimination suit by the US Justice Department. That suit was based on the post-Civil War 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, designed to protect emancipated slaves by barring state governments from engaging in discrimination in public institutions. However, the landmark 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson soon established what became the long-standing “separate but equal” doctrine that permitted racially segregated public schools and colleges. That doctrine was erased by the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. This ruling later had implications for single-gender colleges where segregation was a matter of sex, not race. 

I happened to be interim president at Converse College when this controversy first surfaced in South Carolina in the Shannon Faulkner suit (The Citadel had rescinded her admission after they determined that Shannon was a female). I was caught up in all the political and legal drama. Citadel leaders asked Converse to replicate the innovative VMI partnership with nearby Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. Would Converse offer a state-funded separate but equal leadership program for women to preserve the single-gender status of The Citadel? At that point, the US 4th Federal Circuit (which includes both Virginia and South Carolina) had approved the Mary Baldwin plan to offer such a leadership program for women to be equal to the educational leadership mission of VMI. Are race and gender different in terms of the guarantee of equal protection? A hotly debated question in many colleges to be sure!

We eventually agreed to do this and established SCIL, The South Carolina Leadership Institute for Women. This happened after much debate by the faculty and the trustees—in part because of a concern that a successful suit against these public colleges might then lead to similar sanctions against private colleges (like Converse) because private colleges do receive quite a lot state and federal funds; consequently, we were possibly also going to be implicated by the Supreme Court decision, eventually announced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in favor of the women plaintiffs. More than 550 female cadets have now graduated from The Citadel. I have not heard of any action that might make independent colleges subject to the equal protection clause affecting admission policies. That is an unlikely development now, in my opinion.

Ginsberg declared that the VMI leadership option for women at Mary Baldwin was not substantively comparable to the educational opportunities for men at VMI and therefore violated the equal protection requirement of the US Constitution. Is gender the same as race when it comes to equal treatment under the law? Not exactly, because women are different from men in far more ways than individuals of different skin color differ. The legal standard requires that educational programs be based on “heightened scrutiny” rather than the higher standard for race called “strict scrutiny.” Preparing women leaders, we (like Mary Baldwin) contended, requires a quite different approach to build confidence and independence, whereas The Citadel’s approach (like the concept at VMI) focused on building the corps’ unity.

While many independent men’s colleges began accepting women in the 1960s—partly in response to the women’s movement in that decade and partly to strengthen enrollment—women’s colleges were slower to make this enrollment modification. The Women’s College Coalition says that there are now fewer than 50 independent, single-gender women’s colleges in the country, down from over 300 in the 1950s. There are only three all-male colleges now: Hampden-Sydney (my alma mater), Wabash, and Morehouse. Some academic leaders still believe that such single-gender colleges serve an important function in the broader landscape of higher education today. I agree.

As Harvard professor Carol Gilligan outlined in her groundbreaking 1982 book In a Different Voice, women require attention to be paid to their psychological, moral, and educational values to reach their optimum education level. Both women and men can benefit from colleges that focus on these differences. Such institutions should be one more option among the many that now abound in our nation—yes, a road less traveled but the right road for some students. Be assured, we in single-gender colleges will continue to make that case to prospective students.

As leaders in the faculty and administration attempt to navigate the uncertain future we all face, I hope that Yogi Berra will be proved wrong about “ending up somewhere else.”

Thomas McDaniel is an emeritus professor of education and a former administrator at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

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