Deep Springs College has intrigued me ever since I first read about the singular institution in a mass-mailing sent to me as a high school student. The tiny, all-male, two-year college is located on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in an isolated valley in California’s high desert. The 26 hand-picked students at Deep Springs study great books, work on the ranch, and govern the institution to a significant degree (controlling admissions, faculty hiring, and curriculum) – all in preparation for lives of service. They pay no tuition and typically transfer to elite four-year schools to earn bachelor’s degrees.
I never did apply — too many essays — but I wrote a newspaper profile of Deep Springs some years later and came away from my visit deeply impressed. There was its fun-loving side (students occasionally visit nearby Eureka Valley to slide down enormous sand dunes naked). There was its brainy side (the school’s 4H Club is a reading group whose participants tackle the works of Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and Hannah (Arendt)). There was its sheer physical side (ranch work can be hard).
Above all, there was the sense that Deep Springs students were really trying to learn something – about themselves, and about the world. “Some have likened Deep Springs to a commune or a frontier fraternity,” I wrote in my San Francisco Chronicle piece, “but neither term quite captures the unabashed seriousness of purpose that marks the place.”
I visited Deep Springs a second time (and received warm hospitality) a few summers ago on a road trip through California’s Eastern Sierra with my then-13-year-old son. The college’s seriousness and distinctiveness were just as evident. That should be no surprise. When electric power magnate L.L. Nunn founded Deep Springs in 1917, he was bent on creating a college that bore little resemblance to conventional institutions of higher education.
He also created a college that was limited to men. That restriction been fiercely debated by students, faculty, and alumni for several decades. Thus far, the college has remained all-male. But in 2011 a majority of trustees voted to admit women, and the first crop of female applicants was under consideration this year. The process came to a halt, however – at least for now – when a California judge last week blocked the coeducation plan. Ruling in favor of two dissident trustees, the judge agreed with their contention that the trust laying out the character and purpose of the college – including a provision that it will educate “promising young men” – does not permit the trustees to admit women.
The legal wrangling surrounding the decision makes for surprisingly compelling reading — a version of the dispute between believers in constitutional originalism and those who argue that the constitution is a document that must change with the times.
On one side, the trustees who voted for coeducation contend in legal documents that “slavish adherence” to Nunn’s trust language is a mistake. The trust document’s language about the education of “promising young men,” the trustee majority contends, should be understood simply as referring to the all-male college as it then was – not to restrict future decision making. What’s more, the trustees claim, the word “men” should not be interpreted as an all-male mandate because in 1923 “the word ‘men’ was used generally to describe both male and female persons.”
They assert, too, that language in the trust appearing right next to the “promising young men” wording grants the trustees broad discretion in overseeing the college; this means, they say, that the matter of coeducation is one of many areas in which the trust gives trustees leeway. Last, they argue, Nunn’s writings make it clear that he was not much concerned with gender but enormously preoccupied with training leaders who can benefit the human race. For this reason, they conclude, admitting women to Deep Springs in order to fully realize Nunn’s core vision in society as it exists today is much more important than maintaining an all-male student body.
The two dissident trustees who just prevailed in court see things quite differently. The pros and cons of coeducation are not at issue, they argue, just the plain intent of the donor — to educate young men. In exhaustive and withering detail, they condemn the majority trustees’ “specious and fanciful reading” of Nunn’s language. They contend that the entire process by which the coeducation vote was taken amounted to a form of reverse-engineering, in which the desired outcome – coeducation – was determined first, after which the board assembled a dubious legal rationale for its policy preferences.
Nunn was by no means opposed to the education of women, the two dissenters point out, citing the numerous college-educated women in his family who influenced him, as well as his establishment of the Telluride House at Cornell University, which had become the first coed Ivy League school in 1870. Nunn knew perfectly well what he was doing, then, when he said that Deep Springs was to educate men — wishes that the college’s governing board today should respect, the dissenters argue.
There is much more to all this, of course, including allegations of procedural shenanigans when the Deep Springs board decided to vote for coeducation, then began implementation well ahead of receiving a green light from the court (which, of course, ended up giving a red light instead). The legal documents, email trails, and other helpful materials are compiled on the Deep Springs web site and are well worth a look.
Beyond the specifics of the legal wrangling, the materials also make clear that a lot of earnest soul-searching, very much in the college’s tradition, went into the board’s decision to admit women. Still, does soul-searching make the college’s push for coeducation right?
We’ll see what the next round of court battles brings, but my read of the evidence so far suggests that Deep Springs was indeed meant to be all-male – and that there’s nothing much wrong with keeping it that way. Donor intent shouldn’t be meddled with lightly, and to me it takes a tortured reading of Nunn’s language to conclude that the terms of his trust permit coeducation.
I’m unpersuaded by comparisons to places like Rice University, which was established as an all-white institution in 1912 and was integrated in the 1960s, overturning the founder’s segregationist stipulation. It would be illegal and immoral for Rice to remain all-white today. But nobody seriously questions the legality of single-sex colleges – and many tout their benefits. After all, despite substantial decline in demand, there are still dozens of women’s colleges operating in the United States, along with a handful of all-male institutions.
Of course women could benefit from the kind of education offered at Deep Springs. Perhaps some forward-looking benefactor will find a way to make that possible in a new institution, whether co-ed or all-female. For now, though, a tiny, idiosyncratic college in a remote valley will remain all-male – a thriving outpost of educational diversity that seems to be accomplishing exactly what its founder intended.
Photo Credit: Society for Range Management