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Saint Mary’s guards female identity

Kelly Meehan | Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Strengthened by a $130 million endowment and an increasingly large applicant pool, Saint Mary’s College officials said they have not and will not consider admitting men, despite recent trends across the country to do otherwise.

Of the 300 all-female institutions in the United States in the 1960s, only 60 remain today, according to an article that appeared in The New York Times Sept. 21.

The interest in women’s colleges among high school graduates is dwindling, too – only 3.4 percent of students who took the SAT last year said they would consider applying to a women’s college.

But these facts don’t worry Susan Dampeer, Saint Mary’s executive assistant to the president, who said the College’s endowment and record-breaking freshman class size (426) will allow it to maintain its all-female identity.

“It is nice to be in a position where we don’t even have to consider it,” she said.

College President Carol Ann Mooney rejected any idea of men’s admittance to Saint Mary’s during an Aug. 16 address to faculty and students. Instead, Mooney called for “a stronger national academic reputation” to further the success of the College.

“We know that the number of high school graduates who will consider attending a women’s college is small,” Mooney said. “We also know that with the exception of Indiana, the four states in our primary market (Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio) are predicted to have shrinking populations of high school graduates.

“If we do not work to improve our reputation and expand our market, we will face an uncertain future.”

The all-female future is one thing that seems bright for the College, Dampeer said.

While women’s colleges like Randolph-Macon in Lynchburgh, Va., Regis College outside Boston and Wells College in upstate New York have started admitting men, Dampeer said the option to go co-ed “never comes up” within Saint Mary’s administration.

But that was not the case in the early 1970s, when Saint Mary’s came close to merging with Notre Dame. The merger was called off when the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross felt Saint Mary’s would have lost a great aspect of its identity should it combine with the University, Dampeer said.

The effects of the near-merger still linger in the minds of some students like sophomore Shelby Mashburn, who said she wants the College to establish an identity completely separate from co-ed Notre Dame.

Mashburn said she originally chose the College because of its close proximity to the University – particularly because it promised potential for male interaction.

But her thoughts changed after just one year at the College.

“I don’t like how [some people] obsess over Notre Dame,” Mashburn said. “Now I wish Saint Mary’s was in the middle of nowhere and in no way linked to [Notre Dame].”

Jill Vihtelic, acting vice president and dean of faculty, “sincerely doubts” the College will ever again consider the switch to a co-ed institution.

“Saint Mary’s College is incorporated as a ‘Roman Catholic institution for women, providing higher education in the liberal arts tradition,'” Vihtelic said. “[It] was founded in 1844 by the Sisters of the Holy Cross for the education of female students. The College has always taken very seriously its charge to educate women to make a difference in the world.”

While Dampeer said “it is an exciting time” to be at Saint Mary’s, there is little doubt that the challenge to attract prospective students to a single sex school still exists.

“Market forces have compelled many women’s college to go co-ed,” Vihtelic said. “Simply put, the potential for student enrollments doubles when previously single-sex schools admit men and women.”

But the decision to go co-ed is not an easy one – a fact made clear by recent protests, petitions and boycotts at some single sex colleges that chose to start admitting men.

At Randolph-Macon, 300 students did not go to class and 200 requested to transfer after the College announced plans to admit men in September.

“If males came here it would completely change what Saint Mary’s is all about,” Saint Mary’s senior Michelle Lonnee said. “I think there is a lot less pressure around here without guys.”

Junior Kirsten Forney said the integration of males into a college threatens campus atmosphere and collegiate tradition.

“It is easier to make friends in [an all female environment],” Forney said. “Girls would act completely different if there were guys in the classroom.”

Vice President of Student Affairs Karen Johnson said Saint Mary’s women “have a rich and varied student life, and they don’t seem to miss anything not being co-ed.”

Johnson said the women at the College become strong leaders, evident in roles College alumnae take on from serving as members of Congress to successful authors, lawyers and teachers.

“It is hard to define what makes the environment at Saint Mary’s so special,” Dampeer said, “but it is true we do something uncommonly well.

“Whether it is the small class size or the single sex environment, I can say I have never met a Saint Mary’s alumna who is not confident in what she does.”

Students are not the only ones who notice a difference of a single-sex education. A 2006 study by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research (IUCPR) concluded women’s colleges were better prepared than co-educational institutions to serve the educational needs of their students.

IUCPR researchers conducted the study and used data from a National Survey of Student Engagement Institute for Effective Educational Practice.

The data collected from the survey assessed the educational practices of students and showed that students at women’s colleges “spend more time on productive activities and gain more from their college experience compared with women at coeducational institutions.”

The research also concluded women’s colleges foster a “challenging and interactive environment,” instill a greater drive for success and create an environment more conducive to collaborative learning.

While committed to remaining a single-sex institution, Mooney is striving to increase and stabilize enrollment.

“We should aim for total student enrollment of 1,700 within five years,” she said in her Aug. 16 address, adding that the continuation of Saint Mary’s move in the “right direction” can be achieved in ways other than the termination of its single-sex tradition.

“One of the things I find most invigorating about Saint Mary’s is that it is a place of inspiration, a place that hungers to be better,” Mooney said in her forum address. “It is my intent to help us find ways to both feed that hunger and to keep us wanting more.”