Two years ago, the leaders of Mary Baldwin College decided that the best way to preserve the residential women’s liberal arts college was to start programs that were coeducational and career focused. To skeptical students and alumnae of the college, leaders said this growth was essential to keep the institution financially viable with a women’s college at its core. And in an era when many women’s colleges go completely coeducational — and in which nearby Sweet Briar College nearly closed — the argument made sense to some.
Today, Mary Baldwin University, as the institution is called, still has the women’s college. But that college is part of an institution that also has many coeducational units — a business school, a health sciences college and a new University College focused on helping men and women earn bachelor’s degrees in three years. The growth in programs is roughly what officials talked about two years ago.
But this week, the other shoe dropped. Mary Baldwin told its students, alumnae and faculty members that University College students — men and women — would be living on campus. What was once a residential college for women is now a residential college for women — plus some men. Officials acknowledge that they didn’t discuss the plan for men on campus when they briefed students, professors and alumnae about the direction planned a few years ago.
And many students and alumnae say they were misled about how far from a women’s college the university was moving. Many women’s colleges have graduate programs that are coeducational but have preserved undergraduate residential life for women. And to critics of the college’s plan, that was what Mary Baldwin should have done.
The alumnae are organizing. A Facebook group is called Not for Time but for Eternity and describes its mission this way: “If we can’t stop it, let’s make it painful, and loud. Above all, let’s go down fighting for what we have loved.”
Hashtags being used on Twitter include #NotMyMaryBaldwin, #MBCforWomen and #KeepYourNutsAwayFromUs. (The sports teams at Mary Baldwin are known as the Fighting Squirrels.)
President Pamela Fox is receiving much criticism.
— Jasmine Rochelle (@JRochelleRal) November 29, 2016
Many of the comments suggest that residential coeducation turns a women’s college into something else.
Mary Baldwin has made several arguments in response, although those arguments are also drawing criticism. The university distributed an FAQ with one question asking, “How long has Mary Baldwin University (MBU) been coed?” And it answers the question by saying since 1977, the year Mary Baldwin started admitting men to its adult degree programs. At the same time, officials say that by renaming the residential liberal arts college Mary Baldwin College for Women, its mission has been preserved.
Various facts offered by the university support the idea that Mary Baldwin either is or isn’t coeducational. The FAQ notes that two-thirds of students are enrolled in coeducational programs. Of course the college is also a member of the Women’s College Coalition. And when it looked like Sweet Briar was going to close, Mary Baldwin reached out to its students to offer the chance to enroll in “a women’s college environment.”
As for student activities, the college’s FAQ says that a student government for the women’s college will be preserved but that other activities will be combined.
“The existing SGA is the governing body for the Mary Baldwin College for Women and will remain so. University College will establish and evolve its own student governance structures. The MBCW SGA is an important component in the leadership development experience that is so valuable in the women’s college setting,” the FAQ says. “However, it will be appropriate for many existing student organizations to engage residential undergraduates from both MBCW and University College, and we expect positive, productive cross-fertilization. MBU is working with SGA leaders to determine the details of how this should work, especially important given that SGA has oversight over the funding from student activities fees that provides financial oversight for many organizations.”
In an interview, Fox said that Mary Baldwin would be “purposeful” in preserving the women’s college while integrating male students (and female students who aren’t part of the women’s college) into campus life.
“For the institution, we’ve been in a period of rapid evolution,” she said. “But at the core is a strong and abiding commitment to maintain a women-centered institution.”
Mary Baldwin officials have been making their case on the university’s Facebook page, saying that they are preserving the women’s college, with the one additional detail that some men will live on the campus. Jane Miller, the board chair, wrote that it was “an extremely narrow view” to say that the women’s college would no longer be a women’s college because men would be living at Mary Baldwin. Miller also noted the financial challenges of preserving small private colleges. “I am not spinning anything. I agree with what many of you say about the value of the single-sex experience. However, we have no choice but to plan for the evolution of the women’s college,” she wrote.
Many alumnae aren’t buying the argument.
Wrote one: “With all due respect, it may be a ‘narrow view,’ but it is nonetheless true. If you add residential men to a women’s campus, it becomes coed. There is no getting around that fact. Wordsmithing cannot change those facts. Call it whatever you want, but it is no longer a single-sex residential college. I understand the financial pressures (my eldest was attending Sweet Briar when the bottom fell out there), and going coed may, in fact, be a solution. However, to deny that this move is not changing the residential environment is patronizing and disingenuous.”