Fallout over Mary Baldwin coed decision persists

STAUNTON (AP) — A breakdown in communication between Mary Baldwin College and alumnae has led to a cease-and-desist order and bad feelings on both sides.

The announcement that Mary Baldwin would admit male undergraduates in the fall was met with hostility from former students who are concerned with the erosion of the all-female experience. An alumnae group says the decision seemed abrupt and without soliciting their input.

Mary Baldwin College Alumnae House Renovation Ceremony, August 2016. (Photo by Norm Shafer).

Although school officials have made it clear that the change will happen, and that it’s necessary for the financial stability of the institution, a group of graduates is resisting. They called themselves “Boldly Baldwin,” a phrase coined by university President Pamela Fox in 2008 that has since been trademarked and used extensively for marketing purposes by the school.

The group Boldly Baldwin created a website and Facebook page, and began using the hashtag to spread its message. But school officials became concerned about the confusion that the group could be causing, as well as the impact it would have on donations and recruitment, and it sent a cease and desist letter. The group has since changed its name to “Boldly Lead,” and it has changed its website, Facebook, and other uses accordingly.

“This decision would not have been met in a timely fashion with consensus,” said college president Fox.

Mary Baldwin was seeing a significant enrollment decrease—100 students in two years—but the school has not suffered the fate of other all-female colleges because it has moved quickly into other realms to draw more students, she said, adding that this decision was made in the same vein. Mary Baldwin’s current enrollment is about 1,300.

The Richmond Times Dispatch reported that the coed programs will offer 3-year bachelor’s degrees in the health sciences, education, Shakespeare and the performing arts in a residential setting for men and women ages 16 and older. But school officials maintain that while men will live on campus, the Mary Baldwin College for Women will remain separate.

Mary Baldwin is one of three women’s residential colleges in Virginia. Sweet Briar College and Hollins University also have coed graduate programs, but neither offers undergraduate degrees to men.

Despite assurances that the all-female experience will be preserved—that the coed programs are separate from the women’s college—school officials claim that information is not being absorbed.

“Somehow there is a Teflon shield between that information [and alumnae],” said Jane Miller ’76, chair of the school’s Board of Trustees.

Mary Baldwin University Cafe, 2016. (Photo by Norm Shafer).

School officials have said that the alumnae behind Boldly Lead see the school’s decision as “anti-woman,” and that the group has taken a “better dead than coed” stance.

Rebecca Stevens Teaff, the group’s communications chair, said that while Boldly Lead is concerned about the change, it has never claimed to be anti-Mary Baldwin.

“I have never even heard that phrase,” Teaff said of “better dead than coed,” adding that she first read it in an opinion column submitted by Fox, which accused the group of using the phrase.

“We want to create a bridge here,” Teaff said. “We want to work with the school. We want to help the school. We love the school.”

Boldly Lead has sent an open letter to the school’s administration and Board of Trustees expressing its thoughts and interests moving forward.

Mary Baldwin officials have also said they want to work together and to move forward. Regarding the alumnae’s questions about why they weren’t informed of the decision in advance, school officials said they needed to move, and quickly.