The Crumbling Wall Between the Sexes

MOTORISTS rounding a curve on Sheridan Road one unseasonably warm Friday a few weeks ago suddenly found themselves face to face with a student demonstration. On the steps of the main hall at Mundelein College, 35 young women dressed in Mundelein sweat shirts and Bermuda shorts chanted "60 more years." They also carried placards reading: "Preserve Mundelein's Mission." "Save Our School." "Don't Let Our Ties Be Broken." A few drivers honked as they passed by, prompting cheers from the students that made the event seem more pep rally than protest. Yet the issue at hand was anything but frivolous. The 60-year-old liberal arts school, the only surviving women's college in Illinois, was in danger of losing its single-sex status by merging with nearby Loyola University.

For at least some passersby, the scene produced a sense of d 142>j 136> vu. Exactly a year ago, students at Mills College in California staged similar demonstrations to protest their school's plan to admit men. But while Mills remains a women's college, Mundelein officials last week signed what they are calling an "affiliation" with Loyola that will allow Mundelein to preserve its own name.

"It wasn't easy," explains Sister Francia, a spokeswoman in the president's office. "We opened the college in 1931, and it's hard to give it up." But because of financial problems, she says, "It's the best thing for us."

Increasingly, women's colleges have become an endangered species, struggling to survive in the face of financial pressures and declining enrollments - problems that affect coed schools as well. Their numbers have dropped from nearly 300 in 1960 to 110 in 1980 to 93 today.

At the same time, a growing public perception holds that single-sex education is an anachronism. Just this month two coalitions representing more than 70 all-girls' schools protested a commercial for a new Cookies-n-Creme Twix candy bar marketed by M&M Mars Inc. The ad, the groups charged, implied that attending a girls' school is "bad news." It reportedly showed a girl sitting on a staircase in her home - its balustrades suggestive of the bars in a prison cell - when her parents hinted that she might a ttend a girls' school. Bowing to pressure, the company withdrew the ad.

Women's colleges and schools are not the only ones undergoing soul-searching as they come to terms with coeducation. Virginia Military Institute is currently defending itself against federal charges that its all-male status is unconstitutional. And a Coast Guard task force, responding to allegations that female cadets have been harassed, has found that most male cadets do not want women in the Coast Guard, particularly at its military academy.

Last week, a thousand miles from the upbeat rally at Mundelein College, angry alumni of Yale University made news by locking the doors of an all-male secret society, Skull and Bones, rather than allowing current members to admit women. Student members defended their egalitarian decision on grounds that barring women, who now constitute 45 percent of Yale's student body, is wrong "in the context of today's world and today's Yale."

Cultural diversity has become the rallying cry of educators. It serves as an important criterion for evaluating educational institutions in terms of curriculum, faculty, and students. But achieving this diversity often produces an anguished "change or perish" dilemma for schools and clubs accustomed to homogeneity.

Humans of different races, different religions, and of course different sexes living at peace with their identities distinct and yet in harmony - this is the ideal of civilized societies. Yet history in 1991 is peculiarly marred by disputes, wars, and terrorism stemming from the antagonisms created by human diversity. After their first embrace, even East Germans and West Germans cannot seem to rejoin without painful struggle and accommodation.

Still, the Berlin Wall did come down, and so must all the other walls, actual and symbolic - including those on campuses - until life becomes a more justly shared experience, benefitting not only those who are now excluded but also those who, like the Bonesmen at Yale, risk depriving themselves by being exclusive.

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