There is much we can learn from a place which remains faithful to tradition and its heritage...
All-male H-SC still thriving As it bucks a trend, it has more students and more applicants
BY GARY ROBERTSON TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER Tuesday, April 10, 2007
HAMPDEN-SYDNEY Most of its peers were heading in the other direction on Aug. 20, 1996, when Hampden-Sydney College threw up its sails against a stiff breeze of prevailing opinion and decided to remain all male.
The thinking among most small, liberal-arts colleges was that their survival depended on co-education.
Hampden-Sydney decided on a unanimous vote by its board of visitors -- that its survival depended on remaining just the way it was.
Fast forward a decade to the fall of 2006.
Hampden-Sydney welcomed the largest enrollment in its history, 1,106, and its largest freshman class, 345.
Applications totaled 1,509 -- more than double the number received in 1996.
Males account for only 43 percent of America's college student population. Rare is the school that doesn't have a female student majority.
Hampden-Sydney, a fiercely determined exception, is thriving.
"We fill a national need, an international need," said Walter M. Bortz III, now in his seventh year as Hampden-Sydney's president.
Bortz believes that now may be one of the finest moments in Hampden-Sydney's history.
That is no small claim for a college founded in 1775 -- with James Madison and Patrick Henry among its early trustees that became the parent institution for both the Medical College of Virginia and Union Theological Seminary.
Besides having a record enrollment this academic year, Hampden-Sydney has raised $73 million toward a goal of $91 million by the end of 2008 in its "Through These Gates" campaign.
In August, the college is scheduled to open the largest and most expensive building in its history, a $19.8 million library.
Studies have shown that some men do better in an all-male atmosphere, and Hampden-Sydney's president couldn't agree more.
In a 2002 address to The Woman's Club of Richmond, Bortz sounded a serious note about boys' development and the college's role.
"We know that young boys have a difficult time addressing their feelings, their emotions, and that the onset of maturity will act to distance them from their surroundings, including their family and friends," he said.
"It is at this time in their lives that boys begin to follow various life-paths. And it is at this time of life that we need to provide direction, support and structure to their wanderings."
Nowadays, it's hard to find a comparison to Hampden-Sydney.
It is the only remaining all-male four-year college in Virginia and one of only three left in America. The other two are Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta.
In the early 1960s, there were nearly 250 all-male colleges in the United States.
Shrinking enrollments and the changing demands of society prompted most of them to throw open their doors to women.
In Virginia, the ranks of those making the change included Randolph-Macon College, Washington and Lee University, and Virginia Military Institute.
Hampden-Sydney's bucolic campus is in Prince Edward County, about 50 miles southwest of Richmond. The boundaries encompass 1,200 acres. That comes to about an acre per student.
It's a college at which professors bring their dogs to class. Students store their hunting rifles in the campus gun locker. And on a regular basis a professional fisherman comes in from Richmond to instruct in the art of fly casting.
Bortz said Hampden-Sydney is trying to fine-tune its all-male character by identifying and cultivating activities that appeal to young men.
Some Hampden-Sydney students say they were teased by their high school friends when they announced they were going to an all-male college. The teasing focused on the perceived absence of female companionship.
Just to set the record straight, Trey Keeler of Midlothian said he wanted to dispel any notion that Hampden-Sydney men never see eligible women.
He says waves of them roll in on the weekends.
"There's an old saying here: We're a single-sex school during the week, but a co-ed school on the weekends," Keeler said.
The 20-year-old political-science major says not having women in class is a plus for him. He stays focused because, "There's nobody to impress."
Susan Smith, a professor of modern languages, said she and some of Hampden-Sydney's other female professors -- 29 percent of the tenure-track, adjunct and visiting faculty are women worry that Hampden-Sydney's men may not understand women as well as they should because of the environment they're in.
"We need to challenge the male students to take another viewpoint -- the female viewpoint," she said.
Though her students are uniformly respectful and courteous, Smith said, they often don't take their female instructors as seriously as they take their male ones.
"When a student has two papers due -- one for me and one for a male colleague -- and cannot finish both at the same time, he is more likely to come to me to ask if he can turn it in late," she said.
As a result, Smith said, she has learned to assess a penalty for late papers. She takes off five points each day the paper is late, and won't accept papers that are more than four days overdue.
Smith, like many students and other professors, said she was drawn to Hampden-Sydney because of the small classes and the collegial atmosphere.
Professors frequently eat meals with their students and have them over to their homes for discussions. This is a close-knit community where everything and everyone is within about a five-minute walk.
Melvin A. Moore-Adams is a black man and a rarity at Hampden-Sydney, where blacks make up only 5 percent of the student body.
As president of the college's Minority Student Union, the 23-year-old senior religious studies major is frequently under the spotlight to comment on black-white relations at the college.
He said he has found that for the most part, the college community is very open to diversity. Still, Moore-Adams said, he and other minority students face continuing challenges.
"You may be judged differently. You have to prove yourself academically . . . even socially," he said.
Randy Williams, associate dean of students, is an alumnus of Hampden-Sydney and an African-American. He said the experience of African-American students at Hampden-Sydney is similar to their experiences at other predominantly white institutions, based on conversations he has had with peers at those institutions.
Many of those students, he said, "feel they need to give 110 percent" and exceed expectations.
Moore-Adams said he chose Hampden-Sydney because it was academically challenging, and its size was just about the same as his high school.
He said the students have a strong sense of camaraderie. When his mother died, his friends from the college -- both black and white -- came to his home, and college officials sent flowers and letters of condolence.
"My family is almost always surprised by the interaction with Hampden-Sydney," he said.
As the 10th-oldest college in the United States, Hampden-Sydney has seen a world of change. But generations of male graduates testify to the fact that not everything changes.
In aftermath of the 1996 vote to continue accepting only men, then-President Samuel V. Wilson, a retired Army lieutenant general, voiced a sentiment that resonates today:
"Tiny Hampden-Sydney College will be swimming against the tide of history -- and of fashion -- taking on the considerable challenge not just of surviving but of prospering against significant odds."
Contact staff writer Gary Robertson at email@example.com or (804) 649-6346.