It’s easy to see Deep Springs College — a tiny, highly selective two-year liberal arts institution just outside Death Valley — as a bastion of tradition. The school was founded in 1917 by electricity tycoon L.L. Nunn to create service-oriented leaders, and in many ways it can seem like a finishing school for intellectual cowboys. The 25 or so students are all male. They spend their days engaging in both manual labor (the college is a working cattle ranch) and classroom discourse (syllabi skew toward the Western canon). Alcohol and drugs aren’t permitted during the seven-week academic terms, and the community enforces a strict isolation policy that prohibits students from leaving the Deep Springs Valley except in cases of emergency or religious observance. Even the drive to the college evokes cinematic scenes of frontier outposts: “You come down from the mountains into the valley and see off in the distance a few kinds of trees and a little cluster of buildings in an otherwise empty desert,” says Sam Contis, who has visited the school a dozen times since March 2013. “I wasn’t quite expecting the sense of scale — how small the campus is in relation to the rest of the space around it. It felt like you could blink and it would almost disappear.”
Deep Springs may be insular and remote, but it’s also a place of flexibility and change. The students are given broad powers to shape their experience. They choose which applicants to admit, they participate in selecting which faculty to hire, and at any time they can rewrite many of the institution’s rules. Since the 1960s, the Deep Springs community has debated whether to open the school to women, with some arguing that the college would be falling short of its mission if it didn’t prepare future leaders of both genders and others arguing that women would upset the all-male camaraderie and introduce romantic distraction. In 2011, the board of trustees put the question to a vote, ruling in favor of coeducation by a margin of 10–2. The two dissenting trustees asked a judge to block the measure, citing Nunn’s Deed of Trust, which stipulated that the college would specifically serve “promising young men.” This past April, a California appeals court sided with the board, which opens the way for Deep Springs to welcome female students as soon as 2018.
Contrary to what one might expect from the inhabitants of such a rugged campus, Deep Springs students don’t always play to type. “Over the course of 24 hours, the students do ranch work, but they also cook and clean and garden,” Contis says. “I wanted to burst the cowboy myth a little bit, to say, look, there are so many ways of existing in this landscape.” We spoke with five recent graduates about what life is really like in the place Deep Springers call “the valley.”
Coeducation: Is it Possible in 2018?
The Trustees are pleased that the California Supreme Court decided not to review our case. This clears the way for coeducation at Deep Springs. The trust can now be modified to read, “for the education of promising young people.”
The litigation was long and sometimes frustrating. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a debate spanning five decades should take a handful of years in court. I am proud of the Deep Springs community. The tone during our listening sessions, back in 2011, was calmer, more reflective, and more collaborative than the stories I heard from the seventies and nineties. The mood at the Centennial Reunion was upbeat and happy. Whatever their original feelings on the topic, I think most people are glad to have this controversy behind us. I got a warm hug from Ed Keonjian at the reunion. It’s time for all of us to come together.
Thank you to everyone who participated in listening sessions, gave advice, or supported the process in any way. Thanks also to the legal team that so ably represented us, including lawyers and staff from Baker Manock & Jensen, Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.
At the Centennial, many people asked if we could go coed in 2018, a year from now. “Are there facilities changes we need to make? Is it even possible?” To be honest, we don’t know. There has been an injunction against any coed planning for almost five years now. We need to dust off the plans and pick up where we left off. But when the injunction hit, we were only five and a half months from admitting women. We had received many excellent applications. We are eleven months away from July 2018, when the class of 2018 will arrive, so we have twice as much time left now as we did last time. This doesn’t prove that it’s possible, but it’s a hint that it might be. If we can prudently and professionally transition in 2018, then we would certainly like to!
Now it is time to restart our planning efforts. We will keep the community posted on our progress.
As Deep Springs enters its second century, we are well positioned to promote the Nunnian ideals of service and leadership in education. What an exciting time!
Chairman, Trustees of Deep Springs
Filed under: Coeducation News, College News