A College That Is Also a Cattle Ranch Decides to Admit Women

Deep Springs College

Deep Springs students and staff work the annual roundup to inoculate and test the college’s cattle herd.
September 19, 2011

Deep Springs College has decided to accept female applicants for the first time its 94-year history. In a secret ballot on Saturday, the college's board of trustees, which includes two women and two students, voted 10 to 2 in favor of becoming co-ed.

The highly selective, two-year institution is located on a working cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in a remote valley in eastern California, where the 26 or so students double as live-in farmhands. The board reached its decision after consulting alumni, current students, and five of the institution's former presidents, said David Hitz, chairman of the board of trustees.

"Some trustees who had managed both single-sex and co-ed groups felt that adding women made institutions healthier and more diverse," wrote Mr. Hitz in a letter that was reposted on a community blog on Sunday. He said a major theme of the debate was interpreting the wishes of the college's founder, Lucien Lucius Nunn, a lawyer and educational theorist who died in 1925. Mr. Nunn said that part of Deep Springs' mission was to prepare a small group of leaders.

"In today's world, this group includes women," wrote Mr. Hitz. "Most trustees believe that effective training must include women and men working together."

Still, many alumni spoke up to defend the value of studying and working in an all-male environment, calling it "a time for introspection, for maturing, for especially strong camaraderie, and for reflection on the meaning of being a man," reported the chairman.

The last time the board voted whether to allow women was in 1994. That year, the proposition died with only 50 percent in favor of co-education. David Neidorf, the college's president, said anxiety over finances was largely to blame for the measure not passing 17 years ago, because some trustees worried that the transition would take energy away from fund-raising efforts. He said finances are more stable today.

Deep Springs is planning how it will incorporate women into the college. The administration has not decided if additional construction will be necessary. There are no plans to increase enrollment, which is now at 13 new students per year. Mr. Neidorf said the reaction of students has been mostly positive, although some "seem to feel a sense of loss."

"I personally believe this decision will change the Deep Springs experience a lot less than most people think," he said. While there are mixed feelings among students, none will be on campus to see the vote realized. The earliest the administration foresees having women enrolled is the summer of 2013.