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Sisters offer reaction to college’s co-ed announcement

On May 19, 2015, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College announced it would become a co-educational institution beginning in the fall of 2015.

On May 19, 2015, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College announced it would become a co-educational institution beginning in the fall of 2015.

Citing a desire to be firmly “Rooted for Tomorrow,” representatives of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) announced a decision on May 19 that changed the future of the institution.

The college’s board of trustees unanimously voted for the college to become fully co-educational during its May 1, 2015, meeting.

Beginning in the fall of 2015, men will be able to apply to the college in a commuter capacity and by the fall of 2016, they will be able to live on campus.

SMWC President Dr. Dottie King said the decision was not taken lightly. She said the board had discussed it for the better part of a year.

“We’re about to move forward in a new way,” she said.

During the May 19 press conference, King offered several eye-opening statistics. For example, she said that across the nation, women’s colleges that made this decision had experienced an increase in enrollment of women.

She added that in 1960, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States. However, only 55 years later, 52 of those have closed, 22 have merged with other colleges or universities, and 39 have become co-educational. King also said 34 of the approximate 45 remaining women’s colleges admit men to select undergraduate and graduate programs.

King said that according to statistics, less than 2 percent of college-aged women will consider attending a single gender college or university.

“We cannot be relevant to all women when 98 percent of women will not consider us,” King said. “No one doubts the power of the single gender educational experience.

However, the number of women who will perceive such a choice hinders its relevance in today’s world.”

Sister Ellen Cunningham, a graduate who was a faculty member at the college for 40 years and currently volunteers in the advancement office, said initially, she was surprised by the announcement.

“I was sad, of course, and angry,” Sister Ellen said. “It was kind of a shock.”

However, after reading information provided by King from “beginning to end,” she felt more at ease with the decision.

“It just made so much sense,” Sister Ellen said. “I appreciate that Dottie and the trustees have determined to not just survive, but thrive.

“I really do trust Dottie and the trustees. I think that she is very much in tune with Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. And the trustees I know, I can say the same.”

Sister Marie Grace Molloy, who also graduated from the college, said she believed the decision will help the college in the long run.

“I think it’s great,” Sister Marie Grace said. “And it was necessary to do this. I knew it was going to come sometime. I just think it was time.”

Sister Rebecca Keller did not attend the college. She, too, was surprised by the decision, but agreed with Sister Marie Grace.

“As a Sister of Providence, I think it’s a great idea,” Sister Rebecca said. “For me, it’s more realistic coming to the college because women will be in the workforce with men.”

Men have been accepted into the school’s graduate programs since 1984, and men were granted acceptance into the college’s undergraduate distance program beginning in 2005.

Board member Randy Adams echoed King’s sentiments.

“This is a great institution,” Adams said. “And this was a multi-year process for our board of trustees.”

Sister Denise Wilkinson, general superior of the Sisters of Providence, said the General Council supported the college’s decision.

“We’re used to change,” Sister Denise said. “And we love the college so much. This is a decision that is rooted for tomorrow.”

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin established SMWC shortly after arriving in the United States. The Academy – as it was known – officially opened its doors on July 4, 1841.

Until the May 19 statement, SMWC was the oldest women’s college in the United States.

“May God continue to bless Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the Sisters of Providence,” Adams added.

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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  1. Avatar Brother Jim Reiter on May 29, 2015 at 7:01 am

    The Sisters of Providence have a long tradition of offering quality co-educational opportunities on both the elementary and secondary levels. It makes sense that they would offer the same quality co-educational opportunity on the undergraduate and graduate levels of SMW. Kudos to all who were responsible for arriving at this decision.

  2. Avatar Angela White, Class of 1986 on May 29, 2015 at 7:43 am

    We must stand behind this decision and support all of those Sisters of Providence and other leaders who have gone before us in faith. I believe that the future of SMWC is bright if we all work and pray together to bring about this bright future!

  3. Avatar Marilyn Kofler, SP on May 29, 2015 at 9:53 am


    I applaud you and your confreres who have worked so diligently to provide effective leadership for St. Mary of the Woods College. I fully support your decision to go co-ed at the college level. The legacy of Mother Theodore reflects the many years during which Sisters of Providence worked with great effort and foresight as together at the elementary and high school level we educated not only girls and young women but also boys and young men. While myself being a product of single-gender education at the high school level, I also know the benefits of being educationally engaged with young men and not-so-young men as I continued adult education efforts at the University of Illinois, at St. Mary of the Woods College (Master of Pastoral Arts program), and during the doctoral program at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. My sabbatical experience at the American College in Louvain, Belgium, certainly underlined the possibilities and advantages of not only co-ed education but also the sharing of multicultural approaches to learning and living with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.

    May you, the faculty, and students of SMWC continue to grow in grace and wisdom as together we move into the future designed by Providence and furthered by the legacy of St. Mother Theodore Guerin!

    Marilyn Kofler, SP

  4. Avatar Theresa Tighe on May 29, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Change is always disruptive so we must pray that this one produces eventual unity.
    Although single-sex education is a good thing, the death of the Woods would be a tragedy for those of us who love it. And what a gift it will be to expose young men to charity, holiness, St.Mother Guerin and the Woods charism.

  5. Avatar John Brewer on May 30, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I think the most serious aspect of this decision is threefold:

    1. More than two years ago persons including myself (a former Director of Information Services for SMWC during the difficult 70s) asked if this was in the near future. Such questions received firm denials.
    2. I can discover not a single alumna, parent, donor, underwriter, student or other concerned person who was surveyed, contacted, invited to comment or otherwise participate in this groundbreaking decision
    3. Why so quick to implement? Are there men knocking down the door to enroll at The Woods instead of any of the other three existing coed colleges? Have you already been recruiting for the fall class?

  6. Avatar Rosemary Schmid '63 on June 3, 2015 at 10:00 am

    John Brewer’s comments reflect my own thoughts on the decision.

    I was the class secretary for the first 30 some years after our graduation in 1963. At no time do I recall being asked to contact my classmates to become actively involved in recruiting for students.

    4. Question to add to Mr. Brewer’s points for discussion: Is it too late for SMWC to contact the alums and other concerned persons to involve them directly in ACTIVE recruitment for campus-based students?
    The marketing focus seems to have been on people within “driving distance” of the Woods. Yet, early students came by train from the far reaches of the USA. My mother’s classmates were from “far away.” In the 60’s, when air travel became common, My classmates included women from California, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico, and those places are only the first ones I can think of because I have friends from there. My Little Sister was from Tanganyika, now Tanzania.
    We have the technology to create virtual tours of the Woods. Not just the beautiful campus and a few talking heads. We can step inside a classroom. Participate in a study session. We can learn along with a class about sustainable gardening, how to take care of your horse after a workout, listen to a student presentation in an anatomy class. The list is endless. Those with the means can sponsor a college visit for a prospective student. The Woods can ACTIVELY reach out to countries with young women who are seeking what SMWC offers.
    We have the graduates and interested parties with the expertise and LEADERSHIP to create solutions, but the Board of Trustees and President King have the power to open the door. Until now, that door has been closed.

    I have photographs of me on LeFer’s front staircase taken when I was maybe 10 years old. SMWC has been a part of my family’s history since my mother graduated in 1938. I want The Woods to continue developing leaders. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is knowing when to tap the expertise and knowledge of others and give them the reins for a special project.

    #5 On the presence of young men on campus:
    What SMWC has to offer as a liberal arts college is of great value to each of the young adults The Woods prepares for the future. As long as SMWC continues to expose students to the Woods charism and to deepen the personal sense of social justice that led St. Mother Theodore Guerin and her companions to found a single-sex college, SMWC will thrive. The service leadership model is sorely needed in American society, and in God’s world.

    Even if this decision is irrevocable (and it is only “on paper” now, isn’t it?) the time table for implementation really needs modification. Some current students must feel betrayed, as do alums whose comments reflect their feelings of being blindsided.

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