The recent referendum (albeit, non-binding) about admitting trans women to Wellesley College ended predictably. To put it bluntly, the voters overwhelmingly approved admitting chicks with dicks. Paula Johnson, the President of the college, demurred, upholding the school’s official status as a woman’s college. Since she identifies as a black woman (you might doubt it if you Google her and look at her picture), she probably won’t face calls to resign.
Well, playing the parlor game of whataboutism, one can imagine the outcry if some administrator at a men’s college doubled-down on its policy of admitting only “those assigned male at birth.” In truth, chances are slight that anything would happen. That’s because aside from a few religious colleges the four-year men’s college is all but extinct. Only four are left, and realistically only two.
Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota bills itself as a men’s college but it has a cozy relationship with a sister school, the college of St. Benedict. How cozy is it? The students are referred to as Johnnies and Bennies.
Morehouse College has a similar relationship with Spelman College. Both are in Atlanta and both are HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the acronym HWCU stands for Historically White Colleges and Universities. Obviously, this could be a source of confusion for anyone who assumes it means Historically Women’s Colleges and Universities.
If you are looking for a real old-school men’s college, you are limited to two: Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, or Hampden-Sydney College in Hampden Sydney (the college is hyphenated, the town is not…go figure),Virginia. At any rate, these two institutions account for less than 2,000 men out of more than 6,000,000 college men enrolled in college in the United States.
Hard to believe, but once upon a time, colleges and universities were strictly single-sex. The first school that was coed from its founding was Oberlin College, in the town of the same name, in Ohio in 1834. Over time more and more male-only schools began to admit women. Still, as late as the 1960’s, there was an ample supply of all-male schools for men who preferred such – and they were not all religious or military-related. In fact, some of them were at the top of the academic food chain.
For example, if you were an elite male student and wanted to apply to an Ivy League school, you could go to a men’s school (Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Yale) or a coeducational school (Cornell or Penn). Brown, Columbia, and Harvard deserve an asterisk, however, as they had working relationships with adjacent female colleges (Pembroke, Barnard, and Radcliffe, respectively) and women could sign up for classes at their respective male counterpart schools.
If you were an elite female student and wanted to attend a women’s college, you could apply to one or more of the Seven Sisters (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, or Wellesley) colleges, all of which are in the northeast, pretty much within the same geographic footprint as the Ivy League schools. Though the school colors varied, bluestockings were prevalent at all Seven Sisters.
I’m not sure why Pembroke was never considered one of the Seven Sisters. It was all but part of Brown and there are eight Ivy League schools so it would seem only natural to select eight women’s schools as complements. Maybe it was just some manifestation of the Mean Girls syndrome on an institutional level. Or maybe they just miscounted. Rumor has it girls aren’t good at math. In a way it’s appropriate, as the battle of the sexes has always been asymmetrical warfare.
Both the Seven Sisters and the Ivy League had much in common, drawing their students from upper-crust private schools as well as the upper echelons of public and parochial schools. While Ivy League boys might have deigned to date and even marry girls from lesser colleges (or no college at all!), elite women would settle for nothing less than elite men. Hypergamy dictated that no Seven Sisters girl would be caught dead dating some sod from Stumpjump State A&M!
At male schools weekend road trips to girls’ colleges were something of a rite of passage for many a male collegian. Remember the movie Animal House? One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Otter (Richard Matheson), Boon (Peter Riegert), Pinto (Thomas Hulce), and Dorfman (Stephen Furst) make a road trip to a fictional girl’s school named Emily Dickinson University, likely modeled after her alma mater, Mount Holyoke, a favorite Dartmouth destination back in the day.
Advising his mates on the best way to pick up liberal New England college girls, Otter advises, “Just mention modern art, civil rights, or folk music and you’re in like Flynn.” Of course, that was a few generations ago. Today DEI, trans rights, and climate change might be the hot topics.
The point is probably moot, as I suspect that road trips have gone the way of the raccoon coat and the freshman beanie. Since masculinity is unpopular on coed campuses, I shudder to think of the atmosphere on women’s campuses. Remember, Animal House took place in 1962. That era is as dead as JFK’s New Frontier. Nevertheless, the film has been placed in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” motion pictures. Who would have foreseen that when the film was released in 1978?
FUN FACTS: Donald Sutherland, who plays an English teacher in the film, was paid $50,000 for two days of work. Good money even today, yet if he had taken the percentage offered him instead of a salary, he would have made $17,000,000. Filmed for $3,000,000, Animal House grossed more than $141,000,000. It was the most profitable comedy in film history till Ghostbusters came along in 1984.
The Animal House screenwriters drew heavily upon their college experiences. In fact, if you want a real eye-opening read, look for The Real Animal House by Dartmouth alum Chris Miller (Class of 1963), one of the scriptwriters, the original Pinto at Alpha Delta Phi. Dartmouth students were once known as the “Animals of the Ivy League,” and the escapades in the movie are tame indeed compared to what’s in the book! Yet a decade after the movie takes place, Dartmouth went coed. Recently the powers that be at Dartmouth announced that they had named Sian Leah Beilock the school’s first-ever female President! What would Bluto (John Belushi) say?
What Bluto didn’t know in 1962 was that the second wave of feminism was about to wash over the nation. As a result, the cracks started to appear in the foundation of male-only institutions. One by one, the academic man caves caved in. Harvard absorbed Radcliffe, Brown absorbed Pembroke. In a sense, they were just making it legal since the couples had been shacked up for decades. But when Yale and Princeton started to admit women in 1969, it was obvious the situation was serious.
Colleges and universities were much more “masculine” before second-wave feminism. Women going to college was acceptable, in some circles even desirable, but not mandatory. It was widely assumed that the main benefit of a woman going to college was to meet desirable men. In fact, there was a phrase for it: getting a Mrs. Degree. Of course, that was when the prime marriage age for women was much lower than today – and since men outnumbered women on campus, the women could be choosy.
After World War II, thousands of veterans, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, flooded colleges and universities. As for college men who were too young to participate in World War II, there was a military draft. Given Korea, Vietnam, and the possibility of American intervention in other trouble spots, a student deferment was reason enough for a young man to enroll in college even if he had no particular course of study in mind. As the old joke goes”
Q. What did you take up in college?
College tuition and interest rates on student loans were relatively affordable in those days so the financial burden was much lighter and well worth a four-year postponement of draft eligibility. But the admission of G.I. bill students and high school grads interested only in a draft deferment had placed a strain on the higher educational system.
As the demand for a college education was outstripping the supply, high school slackers were warned about the “closing college door.” At the same time a college education became more important. In truth, a high school diploma didn’t mean what it used to in the days when many students dropped out after eighth grade and entered the job market.
The G.I. Bill students eventually finished their studies and entered the job market. In 1973 the draft was abolished. If draft-avoidance was a man’s sole reason for going to college, that reason no longer existed. So a drop in male participation was to be expected.
Another game-changer came along in 1960 when the birth control pill was introduced. Once women started taking the pill, a future birth dearth was assured, affecting the number of prospective college students in the next generation. Long before the effects of the pill were felt, administrators of men’s colleges could see that it was in their self-interest to go coeducational. If the number of boys in high schools went down, the number of men in the pipeline to college would go down. Consequently, elite schools would be hard-pressed to maintain both enrollment rates and high standards. Having expanded their institutions to accommodate greater demand in the post-war environment, it was foreseeable that the pool of applicants would decrease in the near future.
Much like professional sports teams or movie theater chains, colleges have to put butts in seats if they are going to survive. The men’s colleges had three options:
- Lower standards and admit lesser applicants to maintain class size.
- Admit fewer but better applicants and bear the loss of tuition revenue.
- Widen the pool of applicants by accepting women.
Only Option 3 assured that academic standards and class sizes would be maintained. Of course, going coed presented logistical challenges, such as dormitory space and restrooms. Since Title IX was enacted in 1972 it has been a recurring headache, causing some schools to cancel men’s sports teams so they don’t outstrip the number of women’s sports teams. These were not existential threats, however. Declining enrollment and plummeting standards certainly were.
Exhibit A is Columbia University. In the early 1980’s, right about the time that the lowered birth rate would have shown up in the volume of college applications, the administrators at Columbia noticed that the quality of the applicant pool for the undergraduate college was lagging behind the other Ivy League Schools. Also, New York City’s decline in the late 1970’s likely discouraged applicants.
Well, even in the Ivy League there is a pecking order. No Ivy League school wants to be stigmatized as minor league Ivy League, so Columbia College began admitting women in 1983 – the last Ivy League school to do so officially. I say officially because Barnard College and Columbia College were already living in sin. If I understand it right, today a young woman can apply to either Columbia College or Barnard and sign up for the same courses of study. Sounds like duplicative bureaucracy to me, but administrative efficiency and higher education are usually at loggerheads.
Well, given the hoopla around the Ivy League schools going coed, one might suppose that the Seven Sisters would reciprocate. Actually, with Radcliffe thoroughly absorbed into Harvard, that left only Six Sisters. Of that number, only one went fully coed.
That outlier was Vassar College. Apparently a “marriage” with Yale was broached in the late 60’s, but for whatever reason (perhaps logistics, as Vassar is in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Yale is in New Haven, Connecticut), the proposal was rebuffed and Vassar decided to go coed in 1969. Today approximately 44% of Vassar students are men – higher than most coed liberal arts colleges today. One wonders what inspired the initial contingent of men to cast their lot with Vassar. Academics aside, an active social life was there for the taking, as the sex ratio was in their favor. Perhaps they were inspired by Dorothy Parker’s famous quip, “If all the Vassar girls attending the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” Since the founder, Matthew Vassar, was a brewer, one might suspect that tippling was never discouraged at his namesake college.
So that leaves Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley as women’s colleges, though defining a woman is not as easy as it used to be, even for Supreme Court nominees. Unlike Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Smith are all on-board with trans-women. Mount Holyoke, for example, has entertained transgender and nonbinary applicants since 2014. The school characterizes itself as “a woman’s college that is gender-diverse.” And if that doubletalk intrigues you, you can enroll at Mount Holyoke for just $56,518/year. Whoops! I take that back. Assuming you are a biological male with no doubts about his sexual orientation, you need not apply. Since all-male spaces are unacceptable and all-female spaces are kosher, there is no pressure on women’s colleges to admit men.
Would it be conceivable for any coed college to reverse course and announce it is admitting men only? Highly improbable, likely impossible. Any school that takes federal money could never get away with it. I’m not even sure if someone attempting to charter a new men’s college would be accredited even if they took no federal funds. Still, if Vassar decided to revert to a women’s college, I can’t help but believe that no one would object.
The demise of the male-only colleges is yet another case of following the money. As detailed above, it was in the Ivy League’s best interest to admit tuition-paying females. As a bonus, the administrators could boast that they were doing the right thing. You know the drill…diversity, equity, female empowerment, girl power or whatever. Typically, the more virtue-signaling you hear, the more you can be assured that it is really about self-interest.
There is another aspect to the “follow the money” rule. The Ivy League is all about big bucks. Check out the endowments of the Ivy League schools:
School (Endowment in billions)
Dartmouth $ 5.49
Brown $ 4.7
Of course, Harvard has had a long time (since 1636) to build up that endowment. Yale is a distant second (1701). The other schools, save for Cornell, all date to colonial days. They are, in effect, older than the Constitution…older than the Declaration of Independence. That patina of antiquity is something that more modern schools, no matter how elite, cannot match.
Now let’s look at the endowments of the Six Sisters remaining:
School (Endowment in billions)
Bryn Mawr $1.18
Mount Holyoke $1.07
As you can readily see, the best endowed of the Seven Sisters colleges is below the least endowed of the Ivy League colleges (there’s a sex joke in there somewhere). Also, none of the Sisters dates back to colonial days. Only Cornell is younger than Mount Holyoke, the oldest (1837) of the bunch.
By admitting women, the Ivy League schools allowed women to tap into their financial resources, sort of like marriage in a community property state. Other than Vassar, the women’s colleges have not reciprocated, but even if they did, they couldn’t offer men the same advantages as an Ivy League school. As the distinguished alumnae list of the Seven Sisters shows, it is not necessary to go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton to be a world-changer. But if you’re looking for BDE, the Ivy League, not the Seven Sisters, is the way to go – even in the soyboy era. Surely female applicants realize this even if they wouldn’t admit to it.
In truth, given the preponderance of women at colleges today (around 60-61%, as I understand it), one would not be far wrong if one asserted that now all colleges are women’s colleges. The Ivy League now has six female Presidents. The first was Judith Rodin at Penn in 1994 (she has been succeeded by two more females, Amy Gutmann and Elizabeth Magill). The most recent is Harvard with Claudine Gay. The Sisters, though they have had male Presidents in the past, have none at present and likely never will again. It is no longer politically feasible.
It will be interesting to see how the fracas at Wellesley plays out. I suspect sooner or later they will give in. After all, Hillary Clinton, arguably their best known alumna, is on record as saying she hopes that the prohibition against drag queens “goes the way of the dinosaur.”
In the meantime you can still watch Animal House. Even when it came out it was portraying a world that was vanishing. Dean Wormer (John Vernon) might have been a prick but at least he had a backbone. He wasn’t mealy-mouthed and he didn’t give a damn if he offended anyone.
I don’t know how Animal House would be received at a college screening today. Would the usual suspects try to shut it down? Would they demand a safe space to recover from the screening? Would history or social sciences professors be empaneled to interpret the narrative before or after the screening?
One thing for sure: I wouldn’t count on toga parties making a comeback.