At Oxford: the case for women's colleges

``Our financial situation,'' Mary Moore says bluntly, ``is very bad.'' The energetic, engaging ``principal'' (head) of St. Hilda's College at Oxford University settles into a soft chair in her homey living room. Behind her, beyond the French doors, a very English rain falls on a meadow. In front of her, in what could be the all-too-near future, looms a very English challenge. At stake, she explains, is the very existence of St. Hilda's - one of only a handful of all-women's colleges in Great Britain.

The issues facing Mrs. Moore and her 93-year-old college are threefold. The most obvious is Britain's current financial bind - forecast to produce a cut of 10 million ($15 million) in government support for the university by 1989. Already, faculty hiring has essentially been frozen - resulting, through the complexities of the university's relationship to its 30 highly independent colleges, in an especially severe blow to the small and modestly endowed St. Hilda's. Already the pinch is being felt: St. Hilda's, with fewer than 400 students, ran a 57,000 deficit ($85,500) last year. All of which is prompting Moore to borrow a leaf from American higher education: Next week, in a whirlwind swing up the East Coast of the United States, she will try her hand at some discreet fund-raising among former St. Hilda's students.

The second challenge arises from the steady trend away from women's colleges in Britain - part of the same wave that has broken over nearly all single-sex colleges in the United States and washed them into coeducational status in recent years. This week, in fact, the ``fellows'' (faculty) of the formerly all-women's St. Hugh's College here begin admitting men - reducing to only two (St. Hilda's and Somerville) what as late as the mid-1970s was a five-strong group of women's colleges at Oxford.

Complicating that trend still further is a serious legal challenge from the European Commission. Earlier this year it threatened to take Britain to court over what the commission says is the discriminatory practice of supporting colleges that do not admit men. Seeking to avoid controversy, some British lawmakers have already tried to ``smuggle'' (Moore's word) a bill through Parliament that would make all-women's colleges illegal. ``We raised an absolute stink,'' says Moore, referring to the efforts she and the other heads of women's colleges made as they successfully prevented that bill from passing.

So the battle lines, it seems, have been clearly drawn. The battle itself, however, is not going to be over finances or social trends. It will be over a third issue: the purpose of a women's college. In an age rushing to remove distinctions between men and women, is a women's college an anachronism? Or are there real values that would disappear if St. Hilda's - or, in America, Wellesley or Smith or Mount Holyoke - were to admit men?

``The issue,'' says Moore, ``is not coeducation, which to a large extent has always been the practice at Oxford.'' Here, she notes, the students attend lectures with male students from other colleges and have men as well as women as tutors. A more important reason for the college's existence, perhaps, lies in the fact that St. Hilda's, by its statutory requirement of hiring only women as its teaching fellows, is helping to remedy the woefully low percentage of women in British academic positions - a point which the European Commission seems to have overlooked. But even that line of logic, suggesting that the college exists not primarily to serve its students but to fulfill the goals of a social agenda, does not get to the heart of the matter.

In fact, the real issue is to be found in the nature of the academic community that arises when a residential college is, as Moore says, ``run by women for women.'' What matters - and what Moore and her students are so keen to preserve - is what the recent Carnegie report on the status of American higher education found so dearly needed and so desperately lacking on US campuses: the sense of an academic community.

What sort of community has St. Hilda's managed to create? According to the students themselves, it's a friendly place where students care very much about one another - without for a moment abandoning the rigors of academic training. Third-year economics student Dionne Flatman contrasts it to Oxford's ``mixed'' colleges - where, she says, a disproportionate amount of attention is spent either on male-female relationships or on gossip about them. She likes the atmosphere at St. Hilda's because, as she says, ``It's nice to be able to choose whether you want to see a man or not.''

Second-year classics student Wendy Jarrett agrees, noting that if some small misfortune were to overtake a St. Hilda's student, she suspects that the others would ``come around with chocolate and biscuits'' - where, at the other colleges, she worries that they might ``just laugh.''

In the end, though, what stands out both to these students and to their principal is the absence of woman-versus-woman competition. They may well be competing against men for a place in the world. But here, within the quiet boundaries of their own organization, they do not have to compete against each other as much. ``There's so much unnecessary antagonism and competition between women,'' says Dionne, ``when they want to fill a place in a man's world.'' St. Hilda's, however, is not ``a man's world'' in the way that even a well-mixed Oxford college is bound to be. It is, instead, a more cohesive place, producing just the sense of a supportive community of fellow scholars so much needed today.

Women's colleges, to be sure, have their disadvantages. They sometimes attract students for the wrong reasons: fear of men, hatred of men, discomfort in the ``real world'' outside the college. But St. Hilda's proves that they can provide, perhaps uniquely, a sense of real community. These days, that would seem reason enough to justify the existence of St. Hilda's and her sisters.

A Monday column

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