Gender blending brings growing pains, benefits

The Education Beat

Colleges: Women's schools encounter unique difficulties when they go coeducational, but they also see advantages.

The Education Beat

October 27, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FOR HOOD College, which has made the tough decision to welcome men as full-fledged family members, the biggest challenge lies ahead: the physical and psychological transition to coeducation.

It's a matter of changing admissions, athletics and facilities "all at the same time," says Rhoda M. Dorsey, retired president of Goucher College. Dorsey should know. Fifteen autumns ago, she took Goucher coed for the reason Hood is opening its dormitories to males for the first time in 109 years: Without men - and the tuition dollars they represent - the Frederick college might not live to 115.

Most of the changes at Hood will have to do with something I notice from time to time - actually, about 500 times a day: Men are different from women.

They are generally taller, for example. Sister Carol Jean Vale, president of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which is going coed next fall, told me that her school is going to have to purchase longer beds and raise shower heads to accommodate the newcomers.

But dormitory alterations are among the least daunting of the challenges faced by a college adjusting to coeducational life. After all, in private life men and women, brothers and sisters, share bathrooms. Men's toilets are different from women's only in public places like stadiums, offices and restaurants.

Athletics are another matter. As soon as it has sufficient numbers, Hood will have to field men's teams in basketball, tennis, soccer, cross country and swimming, Hood President Ronald J. Volpe said in his report to the board of trustees.

Athletic programs must meet the specifications of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It's expensive, says Sister Carol Jean, who is adding men's basketball and tennis teams and soccer teams for both genders at Chestnut Hill.

"We're also letting it be known that freshmen athletes at the college will not be riding the benches. They'll be playing," she says.

The new sporting life at Goucher "changed the nature of the place," says Chrystelle Bond, a professor of dance since 1963. "We had sports, but it was essentially an intramural program. Coeducation raised the level of competition to another level, with cheerleaders and all the things that go with intercollegiate competition. There was higher morale around athletics."

Men and women also think and act differently, and here, according to those who lived through it at Goucher, is where coeducation is still a work in progress. At Hood, the transition in the classroom should be easier than it was at Goucher because the Frederick school has enrolled a sprinkling of men as commuter students since 1971; they're not total strangers in the classroom.

"We found that gender immediately became a subject in the classroom," remembers Goucher English professor Penelope S. Cordish. "It was not an issue, but a subject."

Cordish remembers a classroom discussion of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in which one of the new male students bared his soul about every man's unattainable love. "I stood there thinking, `This is really helpful,'" she says. "I was suddenly seeing myself in another perspective. From that moment, I felt [coeducation] was going to be productive and useful. It's still that way."

Volpe and Sister Carol Jean are aware that they will have to alter or eliminate some traditions that are uniquely female. Again, Goucher is an example. "We had sing-alongs and mixers with the guys from Hopkins and Loyola," Bond recalls. "That's all gone now. Now we have a coffeehouse. It's a psychological change."

Julie Collier, former vice president and dean of students, arrived at Goucher 10 years before the change and retired 10 years after. "In 1976," she says, "Goucher was vibrant. Women were seeking out women's colleges, and they were strong students.

"Ten years later, we were struggling, just as Hood is now. Social life was dismal. And then over the next 10 years, we came alive again."

Borrowed homecoming: one of autumn's pleasures

Though my college home is elsewhere, I attended homecoming at McDaniel College in Westminster on Oct. 19. A brief report:

Bair Stadium, perhaps the most colorful drive-in football field in the nation, allows fans to park around the rim, put up tents and tailgate to their hearts' content as they watch the game.

Alumni of the former Western Maryland College mix comfortably with students and townspeople. Before the game, the homecoming parade - floats pulled by farm tractors - wends its way down Main Street and circles Bair, bearing (among others) the college king and queen, their court and President Joan Develin Coley.

Kathy Moore Rittler, Class of 1968 and Alumna of the Year, tosses the coin, and the home Green Terror proceeds to annihilate the hapless Dickinson Red Devils, 20-0. There's another party after the game, and fireworks at dusk.

Small-college pleasures of an autumn afternoon.

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