Monday, May 17, 2010
Congratulations to Mills College on the 20th anniversary of the great anti-coeducation student strike, the most successful student strike in history.
Not only did the protestors get everything they wanted, there was absolutely no violence. And when it was all over, Mills was much better off than it had ever been before.
In May 1990 Mills was facing a rapidly shrinking endowment fund. Not enough alumnae were contributing to their alma mater. The board of trustees assumed that their husbands were contributing to their own colleges, instead.
Ergo, the solution was to start admitting male students, right?
Wrong. As soon as the decision to go co-ed was announced, the students hit the ceiling. Though Mills has always had male grad students, the undergraduate college had been all-female for its entire 138-year history, and they liked it that way.
Three hundred students - almost 40 percent of the total enrollment - promptly walked out of classes. Bearing signs reading "Better dead than co-ed," they blockaded the administration building and triggered a long-overdue national dialog about the value of women-only education.
Two weeks later, the board of trustees reversed its decision, and Mills College has remained all-female ever since.
But then a remarkable thing happened. As a result of the controversy, a lot of Mills alumnae were reminded why they had loved going to an all-female college in the first place. All of a sudden, the checks started rolling in. And they've never stopped.
Mills' undergraduate enrollment has jumped to from 777 in 1990 to 926 today, and the endowment has increased by $100 million. New buildings and labs dot the campus. And it's all due to those 300 undergraduates - and the alumnae whose consciences they jogged.
I covered the protests, and the sincerity and idealism of those students was something I hadn't seen since the early days of the Free Speech Movement at Cal.
The funny thing was that I started out unsympathetic to their cause. I had gone to Yale, which was all-male at the time, and I hated that. When I graduated, I swore, "If I have a son, I'll never send him to Yale."
It wasn't that Yale wasn't a great school; it was - and still is. But the lack of women outweighed all the good things.
The reason was that all-male environments get really neurotic really fast. If you've never had the dubious pleasure of experiencing that kind of situation, just read "Lord of the Flies." It's fun for the few guys in the "in" crowd, but it's sheer misery for everyone else.
But the Mills strikers convinced me that the situation is different for women. An all-female college might not be for everyone, but for a significant number it provides a chance to get a word in edgewise without the guys hogging all the class discussions.
Yale went co-ed a couple of years after I graduated. George W. Bush, who was a year behind me, famously said it was the worst thing that ever happened to Yale. But I think it was the best.
The presence of women completely changed the campus culture. Instead of preening and waiting for their turn to score rhetorical points, the guys finally started listening to each other in class. It's a much better place.
So kudos to Yale for going co-ed. And kudos to Mills for not.
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.