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When Wells Run Dry Another women’s college opens the door to men
by Lisa Wogan
When sophomore Jennifer LaBarbera walked off the field following an October 2 soccer game at Wells College, she saw in her teammates’ faces the look she had been dreading. They were devastated — but it wasn’t from the 0-6 loss to a bitter rival. Her friends on the bench had heard: After 136 years as a women’s institution, their private liberal arts college in New York’s Finger Lakes area would admit men in autumn 2005.
“I was crushed,” LaBarbera says. “I was crying, and I don’t cry very often.”
But she shook it off, hit the showers and headed to the administration building to join a takeover protest that lasted a week and a half.
When the administration stood by their decision and campus protests fizzled, LaBarbera, joined by freshman Lauren Searle-Lebel, filed a lawsuit against the school for fraud and breach of contract. The students contend they were misled, having been sold on Wells’ single-sex status. They sought an injunction banning men at the college through 2008.
In December, a New York Supreme Court justice rejected the preliminary injunction request, but the lawsuit is still pending. According to the board of trustees, though, the choice was either to enroll men or close.
“For 40 years, Wells has made countless attempts to increase enrollment,” said trustee chair Stephen L. Zabriskie in the official announcement. “Yet we have not been able to get above an enrollment of 400 for a sustained period of time. … It was clear to us that we had run out of time to continue as we were.”
And the new policy already shows signs of success, enrollment-wise. By mid-February, first-year student applications to Wells were up more than 100 percent over the previous year’s total, at 775 versus 381. About 150 of those applications were from men.
But many students, parents and alumnae still question whether Wells must go coed to survive. Opponents of the decision question the school’s fiscal management, and the lawsuit seeks to discover whether indeed there is an economic justification for the change.
Meanwhile, Wells for Women, a group of parents and alumnae opposed to the decision, is gaining steam. By early this year, 800 alumnae and more than 200 friends had signed a petition against the decision. In an email survey sent by Wells for Women to 1,455 alumnae, less than 13 percent said they are convinced coeducation is required for the survival of the college.
“I referred to Wells, up until recently, as four of the best years of my life,” says alumna Karen Nadder Lago (’72), who is also a Wells parent. “I don’t think I would have benefited from a coeducational institution. I think I would have been silenced by the boys in the class.”
She’s not alone. Studies have shown that students gain myriad benefits from women’s colleges, from participating more fully in the classroom and leadership to pursuing doctorates in math, science and engineering in disproportionately large numbers. Those students are more likely to graduate and score higher on standardized tests than their peers at coeducational institutions.
Susan Lennon, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition (WCC), recognizes the advantages of women’s colleges, but supports change in today’s market.
“The decision to become coeducational is one of the very difficult decisions that some women’s colleges face in order to remain able to effect their founding mission, which is the education and advancement of women,” Lennon says. “So for the coalition, Wells’ decision is an honorable one.”
Two other women’s colleges have had to make the same choice for the next school year: Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. (founded in 1909), and Immaculata University in Chester County, Penn. (founded in 1920), will go coed, lowering the count of U.S. women’s colleges and universities to 62 where once there were 300. The decline began 35 years ago when prestigious men’s colleges opened their doors to women, who then applied in vast numbers.
“That really had a major impact on women’s colleges and it’s never been the same since,” says Leslie Miller-Bernal, professor of sociology at Wells and coauthor of Going Coed: Women’s Experiences in Formerly Men’s Colleges and Universities, 1950–2000 (Vanderbilt University Press, 2004).
“The percentage of women who will even consider women’s colleges has dwindled not to zero but very, very low.”
Both proponents and opponents of a coed Wells put that number at about 3 percent.
“I have a whole file of articles about the advantages of women’s colleges,” says Miller-Bernal, “but getting that message through to 17- and 18-year-old girls just doesn’t work, and it hasn’t worked. It’s not something that’s changing.”
Even LaBarbera admits she didn’t initially want to attend a single-sex school — until she visited Wells and was won over by the low-pressure atmosphere. Both Lennon and Miller-Bernal offer new terminology to characterize schools like Wells. Lennon calls them “womencentered”; Miller-Bernal prefers “formerly women’s colleges.” At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, which began admitting men in 1987, the term is “conscious coeducation.”
“The bottom line is to remain faithful to the long tradition as a womenonly institution,” says Lennon.
Back at Wells, the notion of a women-centered hybrid isn’t much comfort. LaBarbera and as many as 50 other students are planning to transfer to single-sex schools.
“I want to say I learned that a really small group of empowered citizens can make a difference, that kind of thing, but we really didn’t,” LaBarbera says. “At least we raised awareness for women’s colleges.”