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Virginia College Undergoes Identity Crisis Controversy - 2003-05-25

The name "Harvard" inspires images of gowned professors and ivy-covered stone buildings. Say "Ohio State," and one can picture a mammoth football stadium, packed with cheering fans. "Georgia Tech" brings engineering to mind. But what image does "Mary Washington College" evoke? The identity of this 95-year-old college is at the center of a swirling controversy.

Sixty-five years ago, Virginia's state teachers' college changed its name to "Mary Washington College" in honor of the mother of the nation's first president. This seemed appropriate, since this was a college for women. The small liberal-arts institution in Fredericksburg, midway between Washington, DC, and Virginia's capital city of Richmond, began admitting men in 1972.

To this day it keeps enrollment low, about 4,000, two-thirds of whom are women. The school has flowered academically to the point that magazines routinely rate it in the top ten among U.S. state colleges.

Four years ago, Mary Washington took a dramatic step, quite out of character. It opened a second campus twenty kilometers away and gave it its own identity. The "James Monroe Center for Graduate and Business Studies," named after the nation's fifth president, was designed to grow, and it has done so. Tapping into the region's thriving economy, it has attracted corporate funding and employed business executives as part-time instructors. Enrollment on the Monroe campus has jumped 35 percent each year.

That's good news for the college treasury, but it's troubling to traditionalists. "Oil and water," one Mary Washington faculty member called the awkward marriage between the restrictive liberal arts college and the wide-open professional school. Creating some kind of umbrella university structure to incorporate these disparate activities seemed like a good idea.

But what should it be called? "Mary Washington University" sounds just right to many people, including English professor Stephen Watkins. "Back in 1986, President [William] Anderson, who is still the president of the college, attempted to change the name of the then-college. He wanted the name 'Mary' to be out of the name," he says. "He thought the image that presented to prospective students was of a private, all-women's college, and that guys wouldn't want to come here if it was a school named for a woman."

After an outcry from alumni, President Anderson abandoned that position for a time. But in a newspaper interview in the late 1990s, he floated the name "Washington and Monroe University" as a fitting identity should the college grow into a university.

That has a stately ring to it. But critics pointed out that outsiders would likely assume the "Washington" was George, not his mother. And there are already eight four-year American colleges that incorporate George Washington's name.

Mary Washington College's governing board has since approved the university idea, and President Anderson appointed a committee to come up with an overarching name. Kathleen Mehfoud, a Richmond attorney, chairs it. "I hear all kinds of nice rumors about what we're going to call it. I said, 'Well, that's nice to know, because I'm the chairman, and I have no clue.' Obviously 'Mary Washington University,' or 'University of Mary Washington' would be two of the names considered," he says.

It would be outrageous, Professor Watkins believes, to drop the "Mary" from America's only public university that carries a woman's name. And hundreds of people on campus agree with him. They sport T-shirts reading "Save the Name." On the back is a tribute to Mary Washington from son George: "Everything I am, I owe to my mother."

"Why not celebrate women's contributions to this country's great history? We don't capitulate to the sentiments expressed by the basketball coach, who thinks schools don't want to play Mary Washington because they don't want to lose to a school with a girl's name. Do we want to pander to that kind of low mentality? And the answer that I take, and that the two thousand people that have signed a petition saying, 'You change the name to anything other than Mary Washington University, and we're not going to give you any more money" is, 'No, we don't want to pander to that," says Professor Watkins.

Rod Wood has been Mary Washington's men's basketball coach for seven years. "I'm one of a handful, if that many, who actively go out and try to get males to come to the school. From my perspective, the name of the school is a huge hindrance, not only with the students, but also with parents," he says. "You'll get, 'Isn't that an all-woman's school?' or, 'Are you the women's coach? Well, you know, it's my son who plays basketball. It's not my daughter.' Once you leave a kid, all of a sudden the kid's got to tell his friends, 'Well, you know it's not a girls' school.' 'Yeah it is! It's Mary Washington. Why don't you go to James Madison or Virginia Tech? You don't want to go to a girls' school.'"

Coach Wood's basketball team had a terrific season this past winter, winning twenty-four games and losing five. But he says that's just brought more headaches.

Wood: "When we were losing on a regular basis, it was OK to play us, because as long as you beat Mary Washington, there's no problem. Now they don't want to lose to MARY Washington."
Landphair: "There are lots of men on the campus. They weren't deterred by the name."
Wood: "They came here in spite of [the name]."

The college's administrators make it clear that the "Mary Washington" name will not be totally lost, no matter what the new university is called. They say the Fredericksburg campus will be "Mary Washington College" of whatever the university is named. It could be "Mary Washington College of Mary Washington University," or "Mary Washington College" of something else, such as "Virginia Heritage University."

The latter would rankle old-liners, who say a school is forever known by its university title. The names of its sub-colleges, they say, fade into the mists.

Such controversies are familiar ground at other women's colleges that went co-ed. Sarah Lawrence College, for one, is a small, private school on New York's Long Island. It first admitted men in 1968 and today is 25 percent male. President Michelle Myers says there are almost daily discussions about how to attract more men, and whether the Sarah Lawrence name turns off strong male applicants. "The college, time and again, decided not to change its name, not to twist itself in all kinds of shapes just to attract men, and decided to stay the course and to welcome men in its midst who would be attracted by the kind of institution we were and the kinds of programs we offered. We don't do preferential admission. We don't give men special scholarships to come. We just don't do that," she says. "What I'm worried about is that some people don't even know we are co-ed. And for that reason, if they have a son, or if these guys graduating from high school, and their counselors, don't know we're co-ed, they won't even look at us, and they won't even look at us."

So the college makes it a point to include photographs of men in its recruiting materials.

But little Sarah Lawrence does not have to dance with an aggressive new partner, as elite Mary Washington does. Bedeviled by its erroneous image as a women's school, Mary Washington must recruit men as well as women for the James Monroe program. While some alumni say they'll stop writing checks if "Mary Washington" is dropped from the institutional name, the school realizes these male recruits, like some of its basketball prospects, might be sensitive to the female persona. It all should make for an interesting college year ahead in Fredericksburg, Virginia.