The New York Times
September 6, 2005
Wells College: Newly, and Uneasily, Coed
By MICHELLE YORK
AURORA, N.Y. - Sarah Alexander celebrated the start of her last year at Wells College the way many other seniors before her have. She ran across the picturesque campus to the shores of Cayuga Lake, where she stripped to her lingerie and jumped into the water.
So did many of her fellow seniors. But dozens of students decided to stay away, especially the relatively few newly arrived male students. The men did not want to seem like oglers, and some women did not want to risk being ogled. "You couldn't catch a man over there," said Jamaul B. Phillips, 18, who is from Yonkers.
Wells College, which since 1868 had educated only women, began accepting men this year in hopes of bolstering its dwindling enrollment. For many students and alumnae, it was a crushing decision. After the college announced last October that it would go coeducational, about half of the students protested and two filed a lawsuit, which they later dropped.
The students - 33 men and 383 women - came to campus late last month. Both sexes are now trying to navigate the new social landscape. "I do not say 'babe' on this campus, you know what I mean?" said Daniel J. Henderson, 22, a freshman majoring in environmental studies.
Mr. Henderson studied automotive technology at a community college in Syracuse, but transferred here for a different curriculum and small classes. In addition, his mother is an alumna. He did not think about the possible hostility until a few days before he came. "I was pretty scared," he said. "You can't walk in here and be a guy."
But by toning down his language and jokes, he said, he has avoided offending his female classmates. "You have to be more understanding," he said. "Not to sound clichéd, but you have to be in touch with the feminine side of yourself."
Mr. Phillips is also being cautious, picking up after himself and taking out the garbage in his coed dorm. "You can't do guy stuff," he said. "Every time you want to sit and watch sports or a game, it turns into a movie."
"Not that I don't like 'Spanglish,' " he added quickly, referring to the 2004 movie, a romantic comedy about a Mexican maid in an American household.
But women willing to watch movies with him makes for a better atmosphere than the one earlier this year when he toured the campus as a prospective student. Then, in the middle of the turmoil, the women were "somewhat nasty."
"I could see the dirty looks in their eyes," he said. "But I was not going to let that stop me from coming."
Women are not angry with the men as much as they are with the college for making the change, said Ms. Alexander, who is from Toronto. "We're heartbroken," she said. "People are crying a lot when they think about it."
Wells was a place where women did not have to fuss over their appearance or fight to be taken seriously by their professors. They could enjoy the camaraderie of their campus sisters and their playful traditions. Besides jumping into the lake, the women dance around the maypole each May and kiss the feet of the statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, before exams.
Now, a rumor is circulating that some of the men have a checklist of the women they want to sleep with, Ms. Alexander said. "People told us we wouldn't notice a difference, but from the moment men arrived on campus you could notice a difference. Women are waking up early to put on makeup, and that's odd," she said.
Henry Wells, a founder of Wells Fargo and a friend of Cornell's benefactor, Ezra Cornell, established this college, whose campus is 30 miles north of Ithaca, when women were not considered capable of higher learning. "Give her the opportunity," he wrote.
Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland, was a student at Wells, as was Pleasant T. Rowland, the creator of the popular American Girl dolls.
The news that the college would go coed created ripples far beyond campus. One alumna wrote a letter to the college's president, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, saying the founder would haunt her.
"I believe Henry Wells would have haunted me if I let Wells College close," said Ms. Marsh Ryerson, a Wells alumna herself. But she said that even her 8-year-old daughter had moaned: "What have you done? Boys are so yucky."
Jennifer LaBarbera was one of the students who filed suit, claming breach of contract: Wells had recruited her to attend an all-women's college. After the judge denied an injunction that would have prevented Wells from enrolling men while the suit worked its way through court, the students dropped it. Ms. LaBarbera transferred to Smith College.
The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Henry Wells, Stephanie Redmond, 18, of Washington State, said that earlier this year a Wells student had tracked her down and asked her to support the protest. But Ms. Redmond said the move to admit men had encouraged her to enroll at Wells this year as a freshman. She plans on a career in engineering, a male-dominated field, and said attending an all-women's college might have put her at a disadvantage. "I was glad, in fact," she said.
So was Travis A. Niles, 18, who said the men were now the pioneers. "No one is throwing knives," he said. "It's weird being in the minority, but it's probably good for us."