After 94 Years, Tiny Deep Springs College Goes Coed

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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Nestled in a remote valley in the California desert is a tiny 26-student bastion of nontraditional education, Deep Springs College. Founded in 1917 by industrialist L.L. Nunn, Deep Springs provides two years of free college education to prepare young leaders for lives of service. But until now, those budding leaders were required to be male.

Deep Springs doubles as a working ranch, with students working as butchers, cooks, and cowboys when they're not studying. The education students receive revolves around three pillars: labor, academics, and self governance. When they finish the two-year curriculum, the majority transfer to the most elite universities in the country. It's a close-knit community, which is why it may be surprising to some that the push to go coed came from the students themselves.

Students emphasize that being single-gender is not what makes Deep Springs one-of-a-kind. Alumnus Andrew McCreary says that the "radically different context for learning" at Deep Springs and the focus on intentionality of purpose and service is a "transformative experience that expands what any student thought was possible for them"—and he has long believed that experience should be open to women.

McCreary, who is in his final semester at Yale, says every Deep Springer "has asked themselves, 'why is this a single sex institution and why did I chose to come here?'" He made the decision to attend the two-year school in 2006 only after talking with the important women in his life, like his mother and older friends. "They all thought it seemed like a really good place to go and that excluding women wasn’t tantamount to degrading women or having preconceived notions of women," he says.

Still, McCreary says, "it always seemed at cross purposes that it wasn't coeducational." And, one of the things that prompted serious discussions about the issue during his time there "was this problem of seeing something that was fundamentally immoral about the institution."

"It’s impossible to say you’re educating leaders if you’re not doing it with women involved," adds Andrew Whinery, a Deep Springs classmate of McCreary's. As a student trustee, Whinery was heavily involved in discussions about the subject. Each year, the student body would discuss and vote on the possibility of admitting women. During Whinery's second year, the student body voted for the first time in roughly a decade to become co-educational. But nothing changed in the school's admission policy because the student body's vote was not binding on the board of trustees.

Whinery says the discussions during his time at Deep Springs "had been fairly divisive" and the board of trustees was "somewhat reluctant to consider the topic." Historically, says Whinery, "it would’ve never occurred to Nunn to establish a coed school." After all, the vast majority elite schools in the early 20th century were single-gender.

Whinery, who now works as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books, says he was surprised that the decision to go coed happened so quickly. The possibility was a topic of conversation at an alumni gathering he attended last spring, but his impression was that the discussion was still preliminary. "There were people at that gathering who spoke very eloquently about the benefits of single-sex, and I felt sympathetic to them, even if I was not sympathetic to their point of view," he says.

One post-decision sticking point is that it's not clear in Deep Springs' charter or founding trust that the trustees have the authority to change the school's admissions policy to admit women. Whinery predicts "there will be some legal question whether it’s actually permissible under the terms of the trust for the institution to become coed."

Assuming it is approved, the transition to a coeducational experience will happen gradually for Deep Springs—the school won't accept applications from women until the fall of 2013—but both men are looking forward to the transition. "I’m curious to see what the school is like," says Whinery, "when the anxiety of those questions is absent and there’s a whole new space and a whole new tenor to direct that intellectual and reflective energy.

"The leadership to make this transition is really strong," adds McCreary. "I think people feel really excited about what comes next.”

Photo via (cc) sccs.swarthmore.edu