Thursday, May 21, 2015

Whose Woods These Are.....I'm Not Sure I Know

This has been a very difficult week for Woodsies.  Many have asked me my take on the recent announcement that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College has decided to go co-educational.  Per the announcement Tuesday, men will be allowed commuter status to take campus courses starting this fall, and then can be residential students in Fall of 2016.  I've had a very difficult time putting my thoughts into words about this change to a place I feel very much a part of, and a sister to those like me, a woman of The Woods. But, because of what I learned becoming a woman of The Woods, I'm going to try to work this out using my words, as all good writers try to do.

First, my status as an alumnae is unique in a way. I am not a campus alum- the majority of my classes were online- but I did participate in many on campus activities and groups.  I've graduated from the amazing Leadership Development program, and am currently enrolled in the Transition to Teaching program (another online program) to become an English teacher.  Most recently, though, I am a former admissions employee, who has seen first hand the difficulties the college has had with enrollment.  My connection with The Woods runs deep within me, and is something that makes me a part of who I am (for better or for worse, depending on who you ask).  

Over the past few days, I've read countless social media posts from alums and current students who are reacting to this news, as well as those who are not alums, but either work for the college or have other ties.  Some are incredibly angry, many are very upset, and there are those who support the decision.  I've seen these groups clash many times this week over differing opinions, personal attacks, and assumptions.  My hope is we can all find a common ground and join together.

There have been many issues arise from this announcement, and realizations that have astonished me.  There were no conversation with students, alums, faculty or staff regarding going co-ed over the past year that the board has discussed this option. Many found out via email or twenty minutes before the press conference.  I've heard going co-ed mentioned many times by President King as a topic of conversation of the board, but nothing was ever indicated that it would become a reality.  It was more of an item on the table and wasn't of importance.  Many current students have mentioned they were told it would never happen, and yet, here we are. 

Coming from an admissions standpoint, I can see why the decision was made, but that doesn't mean I have to agree.  Stagnant enrollment has made the campus program unsustainable.  It was incredibly difficult to attract high school girls to The Woods once they heard it was female only.  They instantly shied away.  We're a small liberal arts college in rural Indiana- compared to Indiana University or other state universities that are cheaper, we're not so attractive to many.  What can we offer?  The list of what we can offer is endless, but not always what influenced their final choice.  I've always believed that certain students would be a good fit to The Woods- the kind of girl that would flourish in our programs and grow from the atmosphere and opportunities offered.  It is what makes The Woods unique; we have traditions dating back 175 years, an older campus, and a history steeped in the empowerment of women.  Mother Theodore founded The Woods at a time when educating women was not prominent.  She believed women had the right to be educated as men were, and fought against those who would dissuade her.  From a business perspective, I see the necessity and I'm not one to stand in the way of progress.  However, the way this decision was determined concerns me.

I think what troubles me the most about this decision is the lack of communication from the administration to the Woods community.  Where were the conversations?  Did it all happen behind the closed doors of the board of trustee meetings?  Where was the planning, and why weren't alums and students invited to share their opinions?  Many alums have mentioned Rose Hulman going co-ed several years ago, and the four year process they underwent that involved all students, staff, and faculty, as well as alums and other constituents.  Many have asked why the process at The Woods did not mirror Rose's process, and I agree.  Why no open dialogue?  

Since the announcement that Sweet Briar College- another all women's college- is closing their doors, there has been an uncertainty and underlying panic.  It can happen to us if we're not careful!  Is this were this decision came from?  From fear of becoming the next Sweet Briar?  I know things have not been financially for a while; indeed, in admissions we were always cognizant of the budget and many times restricted by it.  I could go on about admissions issues and the lack of interest in recruitment, but it serves no purpose.  Where was the conversation?

To make matters worse (and believe me, it made things horribly worse) an open session this evening regarding the strategic plan has now been canceled and replaced with a closed meeting for current students only.  Current students who are not on campus, and live hours away.  Many alums and recent graduates were already on the road headed to campus when the email came out that they were no longer welcome at tonight's session.  I can't even begin to express my feelings on this unfortunate decision.  Current students asked for alum support, and now the administration is excluding them.  

Overall, I'm not surprised by the decision, however, I am heartsick at what I think will be a very ugly situation that could have been avoided with open communication.  I still believe The Woods are mine to share with my fellow alums and students, I'm just wondering if they'll look the same after this. 


  1. Angie,
    My name is Janine McNamara, SMWC Class of 2013, and I believe we shared a WOL English or Creative Writing class or two. I wanted to thank you for this beautiful post.

  2. Hi Janine! I believe you are correct about the English class! It just proves that no matter what program, we're all still Woodsies!