Few events on a campus can alter the culture of an institution as drastically as a decision to part from a tradition as an all-female college to one that admits men. Most women's colleges were founded on a mission to provide education to women during periods when educational opportunities for women were few, even radical. The emotional attachment to that notion and the single sex experience is understandably passionate.
This past fall, Lesley College (Mass.) admitted its first coeducational freshman class. When the young men and women arrived in Cambridge this September, they met no resistance, no outrage, and no demonstration from students, faculty or alumni that their presence on campus was anything but positive.
Few institutions of higher learning have made this transformation without some pain. How Lesley University moved to admit men to Lesley College, the residential undergraduate school, without anguish in the community stems partially from a thoughtful and careful approach, but more from a clear sense of our history and mission.
Lesley College was founded at the turn of the last century to educate women for careers in early education. At the time, founder Edith Lesley was serving as a "trouble maker," in the best sense of the phrase, by training women for careers outside the home. As much as we still praise her rejection of unjust social norms of the day, her greater legacy is to view early education teachers as true professionals, and quality teacher preparation as essential to improved outcomes for children.
In both arenas, education and empowerment, Lesley's core mission was and is to meet unmet needs and to fuel improvement in society. Today, Lesley University has grown to become a national institution, with graduate programs in 22 states, four schools--of which only Lesley College has ever been single sex--and among the largest providers of Master's in Education degrees in the country. Whether in education, the arts, social services, or the environment--over 90 percent of our graduates goes on to careers in public service.
The decision to admit men to the college stemmed from the explicit sense of mission that drives all our programs. We knew that a vast majority of women graduating from high school would refuse to consider a single-sex college. We also knew that teaching, in particular, one of our taproot programs, suffers from persistent shortages in high-need fields and a chronic lack of gender (and racial) diversity.
Ultimately, the question was not "How can we admit men to Lesley College peacefully?" but "Why are we closing our doors to so many when there is such need?" Given the growth and dynamism of the larger university and all the societal factors, our mission dictated that Lesley College could no longer justify closing our doors to men.
Moreover, in 1998, we merged with the Art Institute of Boston, a coed undergraduate art college, and much of campus life had survived the presence of male students without disruption. We felt confident that we could undertake a more thorough transformation, one that not only would expand opportunities for more students--both men and women--but enhance the overall educational experience we provided.
The decision was announced in the spring of 2004, and it involved an exhaustive internal examination of our academic offerings, programs, pedagogy, and campus culture--conversations that continue even after the first coeducational class checked into the dorms. Students, faculty, administration, and alumni were all involved in the decision and its implementation. Faculty almost immediately undertook an initiative to proactively work against the so-called "chill factor" that can negatively affect classroom dynamics when men enter.
Through a thoughtful re-branding effort, we set out to reach students for the first coed class who would be specifically attracted to our mission--to prepare men and women for lives and careers that make a difference, and the university's strong social justice orientation. The new "Let's Wake Up the World" brand is a better reflection of our mission and the culture of the university. Rather than trying to be all things to all prospective students, we outwardly project that we are looking for the students who feel a calling to public service and civic engagement.
Students making college choices responded. Applications and essays from prospective students hit record numbers from prospective students who were unabashed in their activism and desire to make the world a better place. They started campus life with a blaze of electricity that has already sparked new energy across the campus.
This energy is the primary characteristic of the class of 2009, and has trumped the novelty of a new gender balance. Whether male or female, the desire to be a positive force in the world is still the common denominator among students.
No doubt, Lesley University will always have an entry on its timeline marking 2005 as the year the college "went coed," but the text of our history will show it as part of the university's continued evolution, rather than a revolution. The real revolution takes place when our graduates carry their passion and commitment to their careers in public service.
Carol Streit, Ph.D., is associate provost and vice president of Enrollment Management at Lesley University (Mass.)