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Professional Opinion

Do women no longer matter in higher education?

Sweet Briar’s closing puts us one step closer to a higher education system without choice
University Business, May 2015
Susan Henking is president of Shimer College in Chicago.
Susan Henking is president of Shimer College in Chicago.

In a “post-racial” and “post-feminist” America, do we still need colleges and universities that serve women?

If most institutions now admit those previously excluded, isn’t the disappearance of women’s colleges and historically black colleges, oddly, a good thing?

Not in my view.

The recent announcement of the closing of Sweet Briar College is not a good thing for any of us, whatever our gender, race or class. The loss of Sweet Briar should shake higher ed to its core, because it further cements the idea that diversity amongst the institutions of the academy is no longer valued, despite the reality that many of the skills that Sweet Briar’s students learn are exactly what the marketplace is looking for.

In fact, the loss is not merely to higher education but to the public good, knowing as we do that the status of women’s lives is a marker of equity across a culture. While the public conversation on Sweet Briar’s closure focuses on the financial reasons and the viability of small colleges, there is more at stake.

When we lose colleges and universities like Sweet Briar, an institution of about 800 women in rural Virginia, we take one step closer to a vanilla, prescribed higher education system without choice. And we take one more step away from a world in which American women have institutionalized routes to leadership afforded them in women’s colleges.

Whether created to protect women from the discrimination experienced elsewhere in our culture or, less positively, to protect men from the temptations women were once understood to represent, women’s colleges offer an alternative today that continues to resonate.

While we may believe that access to coeducation levels the playing field, there is historical and contemporary evidence that this is not always the case and certainly not the case for all women all the time.

Similarities

In many ways, Sweet Briar is a lot like the institution where I preside, Shimer College. We’re a great books college in Chicago. Students study the likes of Aristotle, Plato and Wollstonecraft.

Our admissions office calculates that about 3 percent of high school students are interested in a liberal arts college, yet a much smaller fraction of those students are interested in the niches occupied by Sweet Briar or Shimer.

While we are an ultra-small school—we have about 80 students—those students remain intensely loyal, much like Sweet Briar’s alumnae, because of the kind of education they receive. Like Shimer, Sweet Briar offered a community of inquiry truly grounded in knowing one another and coming to learn not just as individuals, but together.

Sweet Briar was (and is) unique, in their case because they are one of the dwindling number of single-sex colleges serving women. And yet, their fate—their decision—is relevant for us all, just as women’s experiences matter for us all.

Despite the presence of women in leadership roles at some of our most prestigious colleges, we have seen increased attention to women’s experiences of harassment and rape on college campuses. We’ve also seen ongoing debate, inaction and backlash around economic justice, including equal pay, reproductive justice and more.

Alongside this news, we lose Sweet Briar—we are losing institutions that focus on women even as we face increasing sexism.

As we express concern about the absence of women leaders in the United States, we also know that many of them come from women’s colleges. The quiet or not-so-quiet message: Let’s continue to exclude women by allowing market pressures to close off one more route for women to succeed.

Yes, women today have access to many more institutions than was once the case, but is that access allowing them the same opportunities that access to a women’s college accomplishes? Obviously not.

The loss of Sweet Briar represents the loss of institutional diversity in higher education. We know that is bad for us all. Monocultures are extremely risky in agriculture—and in higher education. We know losing Sweet Briar is immensely hard on its students, its employees and its alumnae. It is hard on us all because it stands for a whole list of things that are bad for the public good.

Susan Henking is president of Shimer College in Chicago.

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