My Dream College Won't Accept Me Because I'm a Woman

The excruciating disappointment of applying to Deep Springs College, then finding out that because of a lawsuit, they're not going co-ed after all

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"Isolated," "labor-intensive," and "rural" are not typical keywords for a high school girl's college dream. But they were for mine. With a student body of 26 and an emphasis on manual labor, Deep Springs was unlike any college I had heard of. Students enroll for two years and receive full-tuition scholarships, then transfer to a four-year college program to complete their degrees. Admissions are extremely competitive—accepted students have an average score of 700 (out of 800) on each of the math and verbal sections of the SAT. Located in California's High Desert, the school has a cattle ranch and an alfalfa farm, where students are not only obligated to their education but also to the demands of the agriculture around them. Deep Springs emphasizes self-governance; students belong to committees to make important decisions about the school, from hiring new teachers to soliciting media attention. The school uses these three pillars of education—physical labor, immersive academics, and democratic deliberation—to fulfill its purpose of creating students who dedicate their lives to service of humanity.

But there's one more thing. Since its founding in 1917, Deep Springs has been an all-male institution. A couple years ago, as I enviously clicked through the Deep Springs website, the opportunity to attend was not open to me. Little did I know, at the same time, the Board of Trustees had entered a process to challenge the all-male tradition. In the fall of 2011, they announced at their bi-annual meeting that they had come to the monumental decision to open their doors (or more likely, their gates) to female applicants. In what seemed like fate calling out to me, the first class of women would enter in 2013, the year I graduate from high school.

I was attracted to the intensity of Deep Springs—to the thought of dedicating myself to an unfamiliar and challenging experience for two years. I wanted to immerse myself in my education, to get away from the noise and distraction of society and gain introspective awareness and keen focus.

The Deep Springs application process is exhaustive, with an initial submission of three essays totaling 2,500 words, a list of all the books the applicant has read in the past year, and a list of extra-curricular activities. At first, the applicant submits no teacher recommendations and is granted no interview. If the applications committee (also run by students) is intrigued by an application, the prospective student is invited to the second round, which consists of more essays and a four-day visit to the campus.

I definitely felt out of place in the Kierkegaard-quoting, Art of War-toting applicant pool, but I was eager to apply and see what happened. Besides, if rejected from the first round, my plan was to pester the applications committee with emails until they accepted me out of sheer annoyance.

But I lost even that opportunity on January 8th, when a court injunction prohibited the school from further considering me or any of the other female applicants.

Upon opening the email of that particular news, my heart sank. Here is what happened.

When the board made their decision on co-education in late 2011, they voted ten to two. The two trustees who voted against the decision were alumni of the school who believed the importance of remaining in the bounds of the trust—which states that Deep Spring's purpose is to educate young men.

My initial reaction to finding out I couldn't apply to Deep Springs was anger. These trustees nullified the application that I had spent hours crafting because of an archaic sentence which pertained to "the education of promising young men." In the fall, I had been given the chance to apply to my dream school, and just a few months later, these trustees took that away from me suddenly, and in my opinion, unfairly. I was hurt.

To figure out in detail what had happened, I spoke with both David Neidorf, current president of Deep Springs, and Kinch Hoekstra, University of California Berkeley professor and one of the dissenting Deep Springs trustees. I was nervous about approaching Hoekstra in particular, but he was exceptionally empathetic and helpful to my understanding of the case.

David Neidorf explained that in 1923, five years after Deep Springs was founded by L. L. Nunn, it became a charitable trust instead of a nonprofit organization as most colleges are. According to this trust, the purpose of a Deep Springs education is to teach generous, highly capable young men to become leaders and live in service to humanity. To Neidorf, the emphasis on an all-male environment is negligible. He thinks that the most important aspects of Deep Springs do not come from the single-sex aspect, but from the tight bond formed between the students in the unique setting. "Because of the fact our students come here and work in a very small, intense community with a lot of mutual responsibility that is an all-male community, they sometimes associate that aspect with their feelings of the school when in fact it is a multitude of factors that makes Deep Springs such a unique place." Neidorf said that to honor Nunn's mission to educate future leaders, accepting women would be a step in the right direction.

When I asked Hoekstra about this sentiment, he said that a trustee's duty to a trust goes beyond the trustee's personal beliefs: "Neither trustees nor courts have the authority to change or ignore a trust provision simply because they think it isn't optimal or preferable (even if the preference is based on their passionate moral beliefs). It seems clear to me that the case of the majority trustees depends entirely on just such a preference."

What Hoekstra said made sense. Our conversation helped me move from my initial understanding of his decision—"Does he have nothing better to do than crush the hopes and dreams of teenage girls?"—to "Yes, he does have a logical claim, but it's still upsetting that I'm not able to apply to a program as unique as Deep Springs."

Hoekstra continued: "The great thing about the legal protection of charitable trusts over time is that we don't all have a bunch of institutions in 2013 that are wholly determined by what trustees happen to think in 2013. That would lead to an appalling homogenization of our cultural, social, and educational landscape. Instead, people set up different projects in 1880, or 1938, or 1972, and those visions, sometimes gloriously out of step with how we currently think and sometimes maddeningly so, may continue to thrive. (So long as people are still interested in them and they are not illegal, impossible, or impracticable.)"

Despite the complex trust law issues and the ongoing court case, the issue to me is simple. Young women aren't able to apply to a school like Deep Springs, and we should be.

Joseph Liburt, Kinch Hoekstra's attorney, told the website Inside Higher Ed that "The case is about asking the court 'to uphold the value of diversity in higher education,' so that those male and female students who want single-sex education can find it." This argument troubles me.

The fact of the matter is that young women face a lack of diversity in their higher education. Young men do not pine over all-women schools like Bryn Mawr or Scripps because there are reasonably similar co-educational programs. However, there is not a school like Deep Springs that is available to young women.

I began my quest disappointed with Deep Springs and angry with Hoekstra. Now, I find myself disappointed with the lack of schools for women that are similar to Deep Springs and angry that such gender limitations exist in the world of education in 2013. Because of the sudden change in the Deep Springs admissions policy, the seven spots that would have been given to the admitted women candidates will be given to men who would not have been accepted otherwise.

"The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things...You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you."

This quotation is attributed to L. L. Nunn, the founder of Deep Springs, and it is the first text you'll find when visiting the school's website. Two years ago when I was knee-deep in my Google search of "Deep Springs", these words jumped out at me, enticing me, but never welcoming me. Today, their promise is just as distant.