May 29, 2015

After 175 years, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College decides to enroll men in undergraduate programs

Le Fer Hall, a student residence building on the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, has been home to students of the up until recently all-female college since 1924. The college made an announcement on May 19 that starting in the fall of 2015, men will be allowed to enroll as commuters for undergraduate programs, and as residents starting in the fall of 2016. (Photo courtesy of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College)

Le Fer Hall, a student residence building on the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, has been home to students of the up until recently all-female college since 1924. The college made an announcement on May 19 that starting in the fall of 2015, men will be allowed to enroll as commuters for undergraduate programs, and as residents starting in the fall of 2016. (Photo courtesy of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College)

By Natalie Hoefer

For 175 years, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, just west of Terre Haute, has been fulfilling its mission to “empower students to think critically, engage in lifelong leadership, and effect positive change in a spirit of service and social responsibility.”

To date, that mission has involved only female students in the college’s undergraduate programs.

That fact changed on May 19 when the college announced its decision to become a co-educational institution. Beginning with the fall semester, men will be accepted as commuter students in the college’s on-campus undergraduate programs, and as residential students in the fall of 2016.

“I think the straight-forward, obvious reason [for the decision] is under-enrollment in our women’s program,” said Dottie King, president of the college.

“This isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s gone on since 1970. In recent years, it’s been really challenging for us from a budgetary point of view.”

The recent decision came about after a year of deliberation by the college’s board of trustees as they weighed different options to address the decreasing enrollment.

“We looked at our heritage,” King said. “We looked at what we want to be and how to get there.

“We see this [decision] as an affirmation and advancement of our mission. We’ve been proud of the fact that we’ve educated women for the future, and we’re excited to educate men and women about women’s roles and women’s leadership, and creating a curriculum that creates a conversation and better collaboration between men and women.”

While the on-campus degree programs have only been open to women until now, King points out that educating men is not something entirely new to the college.

The graduate programs added in 1984 have been co-educational from the start, and the college’s distance program became co-ed in 2005.

Plus, she noted, “Our traditional campus has already had the possibility of having males in the classroom.

“Men could take classes if they attended Indiana State University or Rose-Hulman [Institute of Technology]. Sons of current employees or men in [our] distance education program could take as many as two classes per semester on campus. Men pursuing a certificate program that didn’t lead to a degree could take on-campus classes. In those ways, we have already been co-educational.”

The recent decision was made with an eye toward increasing enrollment by more than accepting male applicants to the college’s on-campus undergraduate programs.

“This [decision] was as much about the 98 percent of women who would not look at us, as it was about men,” said King, referring to a national statistic cited in the press release announcing the change. “We are interested in male students, but also in the 98 percent of women who will now consider us because we’re co-ed.”

The board of trustees is hopeful that Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College will have results like those of Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa.

Similar in size and composition to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the formerly all-female college made the decision to accept men to its on-campus undergraduate programs in 2013.

“With their enrollment from their last year as an all-women’s college as the starting point, their enrollment went up by 21 percent the first year and by 45 percent the second year,” said King. “This year, they’re projecting their largest freshman class in 40 years.”

While King doesn’t see drastic change happening immediately on the campus, an implementation team of faculty, staff, current students and alumnae has been created to prepare for and moderate the change.

“I want this team to focus on two things in particular, as well as any other things they deem necessary,” she said. “First, how will we maintain that important mission to empower and educate women to reach their full potential. And second, how do we do that while still openly being accepting of the value men will bring to the campus.

“With that team, we will ensure that the change in our campus is slow and deliberate.”

King admitted that response to the news has been “all over the place.”

“One thing that’s common has been a sense of sadness because of the thought of losing something that is precious,” she said. “That’s been a shared response from current students and alumnae, and those who work in this environment.

“A bigger proportion of our students have expressed outrage and anger. We realize anger is probably hurt.”

But there have been some positive responses. King noted that one alumna from the 1960s made a sizable donation after hearing the news, commenting that she felt more hope for the college than she had felt in a long time.

The Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the order that founded the college and remains its sponsor, published a statement of support for the decision.

“The decision of the Saint Mary-of- the-Woods College Board of Trustees to expand the college’s mission by including men in the on-campus undergraduate program responds to the changing demographics and educational preferences of ‘this place and time,’ ” the sisters wrote, quoting words from their foundress, St. Mother Theodore Guérin.

“While the decision is a significant change for the undergraduates of the on-campus program, … it acknowledges the countless changes in religious, educational and civic arenas happening continuously over the past 175 years of the college’s mission and ministry of education.”

In the statement, signed by Providence Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the order, the sisters offer the words of their founder as consolation: “Our hearts go out to those who will find this change difficult. Yet, once again, let us listen to these words of Saint Mother Theodore: ‘I now await in peace whatever it may please our Lord to ordain for the future of our institution.’ ”

King is hopeful for the college’s future as a result of the decision.

“We know things are changing,” she said. “But most of us believe we have to let go of something, so something new can start.

“We rely on Providence, and we believe Providence is leading us in this direction. It’s exciting to see what Providence has in mind for us.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!