In conjunction with the announcement that Randolph-Macon Woman’s College will admit males next fall, an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education asked, “Whether single-sex colleges are still relevant, or merely an outdated remnant of the old days before feminism and Title IX.”

Russell Sage College Dean Sharon Robinson responds with a look at what defines the successful women’s college today.

 

Engaging Minds:

Women's Colleges in the 21st Century

 

As a member of the last all-women class to graduate from Vassar, and as the dean of Russell Sage College, I was heartened by Rosemary Salomone’s Point of View essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“A Place for Women’s Colleges,” February 16, 2007)—but sobered by her somewhat melancholy conclusion. As Salomone notes, the few women’s colleges that are well-known and well-endowed (make your own joke here) will surely survive for the foreseeable future. The rest of us, however, must evolve or die: The millennials have little interest in their mothers’ women’s colleges.

 

When I graduated from Vassar in 1969, I entered a world of “Help Wanted Male/Help Wanted Female”; a world that assumed a secretarial position was a woman’s best entree into business or publishing; and a world of systemic sexual harassment routinely greeted with a wink and a nod. Shortly before graduation, I made an appointment with the career counselor (a part-time person in a refurbished broom closet, as I recall). She looked in wonderment at the ring finger of my left hand and said with profound sorrow, “Not engaged, dear?” She then suggested that Peck and Peck, the department store across the street from campus, might be hiring.

 

Despite this quaint view toward women and work, my classmates have gone on to do incredible things: The first woman vice president of the Ford Foundation; the founder of the Nickelodeon network, and then the Oxygen network; the chief prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, now turned best-selling mystery novelist; and the executive producer of MYSTERY! and Masterpiece Theatre. And they are emblematic of the many accomplishments of women’s college graduates, so many of whom have been the “first” in their fields. What did we get from our all-women’s education that mattered? An exceptional liberal arts education, for starters. Although there was no curricular focus on women or scholarship about women, no pedagogical focus on women’s learning styles, there was the simple fact that women were the center of everything.

 

We held all the student government offices, got all the athletic funding, wrote all the articles for the student newspaper, had all the good parts in plays that were chosen because they had good parts for women—you get the picture. Existing in that happy world for four years and then exiting into a very different “real” world was a terrific shock—and it’s not surprising that women of my generation became the feminist movers and shakers of the 1970s. The “magic” of my alma mater was, I’m afraid, quite accidental—the simple result of the fact that we were all women.

 

Institutions that continue to define themselves as women’s colleges solely by dint of the fact that only women are enrolled are, I think, doomed. Reality to the contrary, many millennials are under the impression that the gender struggle is over, the battle’s been fought and won—and perception is everything.

 

What defines the successful women’s college of the 21st century? Students (and their parents) must be able to see clearly the value of the experience and of its outcomes. And there is value in a contemporary college that:
• Encourages risk-taking and entrepreneurship (areas traditionally
avoided by women);
• Requires undergraduate research and collaborative enterprise;
• Directs students to areas of study where women are underrepresented— math, science, and engineering, for example;
• Demands technological fluency (not just literacy) across the curriculum;
• Makes leadership a part of the curriculum;
• Makes ethical reasoning a part of the curriculum;
• Makes financial literacy a part of the curriculum;
• Develops a core curriculum that recognizes its consumers as women;
• Employs and supports faculty familiar with women’s learning styles;
• Respects “traditional” women’s professions, understanding that we need the most rigorous possible preparation for talented students who aspire to be nurses and teachers.

 

At Russell Sage College these values create fertile ground for self-exploration and intellectual engagement. Our students intern in the only nanotechnology business incubator located on a women’s college campus; they control the Haystack radio telescope at MIT from Science Hall in Troy, New York; they work with middle and high school girls in the project (Girls Excited About Engineering, Mathematics + Computer Science); they earn a 100-percent pass rate on the national teacher exam; they participate in the WORLD (Women Owning Responsibility for Learning and Doing) core curriculum, taking an interdisciplinary course called Women in the World during their firstsemester, and practicing grass-roots change agency in the senior level Women Changing the World; they perform notDepartment, but also with the professional New York State Theatre Institute, in residence on the Sage campus; they travel annually with a faculty mentor to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research to present competitively-judged papers and posters; they intern at the New York State Assembly, the New York State Forensic Laboratory, the Albany Institute of History and Art, the Rensselaer County Historical Society, the New York State Attorney General’s Office, the Albany and Rensselaer Chambers of Commerce; they complete a 3+3 JD program with Albany Law School, a 4 + 2 Physician’s Assistant Program with Albany Medical College, an early assurance MD program with Albany Med; they travel to Italy and New Orleans,
Greece and Detroit, Ireland and Texas; they raise thousands of dollars every year
for local charities. They are serious, determined, funny, compassionate, able and intelligent women of influence who soak up every ounce of the value-added curriculum that Russell Sage offers them—just a day in the life of a 21st century women’s college.