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The New York Times

 

New York Times

April 23, 2006

The Final Four

ONE thing you might notice when you first meet Tom Melton and Matt Guill, two seniors at Hampden-Sydney College in rural Virginia, is the pleasantly anachronistic, utterly non-slacker way they greet you they look you in the eyes, they say hello clearly, and in a friendly manner they inquire about your well-being.

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any time at one of the last die-hard men's colleges in the United States or who has perused "To Manner Born to Manners Bred A Hip-Pocket Guide to Etiquette for the Hampden-Sydney Man."

After all, right there on Page 6 is the section on greetings and handshakes, which begins: "Always extend your hand upon meeting people for the first time, look them in the eyes, smile, and say 'Hello' clearly and in a friendly manner. You may express pleasure about the meeting or inquire about their well-being."

It is followed by 51 pages of crisply worded advice on how a Hampden-Sydney man replies to a formal invitation, what he should wear to church, a funeral or a debutante party, the importance of the magic word "please," the proper way to chew food and the difference between a butter spreader and a butter knife. (The butter spreader stays on your bread plate; the butter knife stays with the butter supply for the table.)"There is more to being a gentleman than a gold American Express card and an Armani suit," it says in the foreword. "At Hampden-Sydney, a gentleman is foremost 'a good man and a good citizen.' "

Once upon a time, not that long ago really, there was such a thing as a Yale man or a Dartmouth man or, closer to here, a University of Virginia or Washington and Lee man, each believed to be an identifiable subset of the male species. By the mid-1960's, there were still almost 250 all-male colleges, heirs to a long tradition of male entitlement going back to the beginnings of higher education in America. But by the late 60's, hammered by questions about their relevance, their fairness, their exclusivity and their reasons for existing, nearly all began to go coed.

Now, not counting seminaries and those few that share classes with women's colleges, only four holdouts remain: Hampden-Sydney, about 60 miles southwest of Richmond; Wabash College, 45 miles northwest of Indianapolis; Morehouse College in Atlanta; and Deep Springs, a two-year college limited to 27 students in each class and located on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in the high desert of eastern California.

But an odd thing has happened on the road to extinction. In the past few years, a major public debate about education has shifted from underperforming women to underperforming men, from how schools fail to support girls to how they fail to support boys. Consistently, boys do more poorly than girls when tested for verbal skills and get lower grades, and they are more likely to drop out of high school and college. Nationally, the gender mix on campuses has shifted from a predominance of men to one that's 57 percent women and 43 percent men. As a result, men's colleges find themselves talking about issues that sound oddly contemporary. Long after everyone else changed, the dinosaurs seem to be having their day.

"I remember going to the first board meeting this year that came 10 years after the college decided to stay all-male," said Mr. Melton, chairman of the Hampden-Sydney student court, which enforces the rigid campus honor code. "And before we got into how much we've grown since then, everyone just started clapping, as if to say, of course, this is what we wanted it to be, we're glad that things turned out this way."

Still, while the nearly 60 all-women's colleges that exist today are often seen as broadly relevant for women trying to find their way, men's campuses can seem strange and slightly unnatural: anachronisms even for their own students. "I think it's slightly nuts, when you think about it," said Chris Ogden, a Wabash senior from Schererville, Ind. "The idea of going to school with just men? It does seem crazy, but then you come here, and you find out it works."

If it works, advocates say, it's because people are belatedly realizing that men's colleges can play as positive and distinctive a role as women's. And, they argue, at a time when men are lagging badly in higher education, they may be more relevant than ever.

Walter E. Massey, president of Morehouse, a historically black college, points to urban districts pondering all-boys schools or classes. He says the same dynamic makes sense for many college students as well. "We provide an environment nurturing is too soft a word, and guys don't like it, but that's what it is that is supportive for men in a way that makes them feel comfortable," he said. "Men don't like to ask for help. And so what you need to do is create an environment where they feel they can come to seek assistance about the academic and personal issues in their lives."

He continued: "We've learned that there are differences in the ways that boys and girls learn and there can be some advantages in having boys and girls in separate learning environments. It may not be for everyone, but for a large segment of the population, a single-sex environment can be more productive and more fulfilling, and that's not just true for women."

IN most ways, the four small campuses could not be more different.

Hampden-Sydney's approach is part Southern gentleman, part good-ol'-boy club, with an emphasis on liberal arts, rhetoric and public speaking as well as a gun locker where students store the shotguns and rifles they take on hunting trips. Wabash, with 70 percent of its students from Indiana, combines stringent academics, intense school spirit and a sense of Midwestern straight-shooter probity in which all the rules and regulations on campus boil down to one: "A student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen."

Morehouse has always seen itself as an incubator for black leaders its alumni include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the director Spike Lee. Deep Springs, the most anomalous of the four, is sort of "Brokeback Mountain" (minus the sexual orientation issues) meets Harvard; it is a highly selective college combining academics, manual labor, self-governance and a dose of desert spirituality with all students on full scholarship. Most students then go on to top-drawer four-year universities.

But for all their differences, they have fundamental qualities in common. First, as Dr. Massey of Morehouse noted, is the belief that men can learn better, focus more whether it's on calculus or, at Deep Springs, fixing a broken irrigation pipe in an environment where they're not vying for the attention of the young woman in the halter top in the next seat. One rationale for single-sex institutions during their heyday was that it made sense for college to be a retreat from the world, a cloistered environment where young people could focus on the business of learning. Officials at the four colleges say that's still true.

"There's an answer that every student can immediately recite, that people, especially young people, change their behavior and often in unhealthy ways around members of the opposite sex," said J. D. Phillips, a mathematics professor at Wabash who has also taught at Deep Springs. "You see that in the idea that women try to look dumber than they are, so as not to turn off guys, and that boys change their behavior too. You don't have that in a classroom at Wabash."

Second is a self-conscious sense of gender, an ability to explore what it means to be a man in the way women's colleges explore what it means to be a woman. From orientation week on, Morehouse focuses on male identity as well as black identity, including lectures by successful black leaders, a research institute that examines issues affecting black men and boys, and courses like "Men in Society," about men in general and black men in particular.

Third is a set of rituals and traditions that bond the men who go there in ways that define their experience. At Wabash, they include a spirit group called the Sphinx Club, whose members lead cheers at athletic events, and the annual Chapel Sing, in which freshman fraternity pledges compete on the chapel steps to see who can sing the school song the loudest.

"We live in a culture that has shockingly few rituals and traditions to guide boys into manhood," Stephen H. Webb, a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash, wrote in a 2001 article in the Fordham Urban Law Journal defending all-male education.

"To have an all-male school work, the school needs to be rich in tradition and ritual. The school needs to be a sacred place, because young men need discipline and transcendent goals."

Fourth is a campus life that strives for the delicate balance between competition and cooperation, and often achieves it. "This is a place that cultivates the competitiveness of young men in a very healthy way," said Professor Phillips of Wabash. "Because we're small and most students know each other, they compete, but in a brotherly way, without being bloodthirsty the way it might be in a larger place."

The experience is not for everyone. The coed model is now so well established that almost no one imagines the tiny male universe growing to include more schools, other than perhaps conservative, religious ones. Even proponents concede that much of what's gained is offset by the lack of women's viewpoints on campus. Skeptics might say that classes with only men, whether studying women's literature or workplace issues, are flawed vehicles for preparing students for the world they will graduate into.

The bond that creates the shared experience can also produce one that others might find too homogeneous and narrow, at least at Wabash and Hampden-Sydney, which draw most broadly from the general population. So when Tim Samsa, a Hampden-Sydney senior, casually remarks, "This place is very homophobic," he's passing on information, not making a criticism, or when another student walks by in a T-shirt reading "Welcome to America Now Speak English," he doesn't seem worried about offending anyone. (Of the 1,000 or so students enrolled at Hampden-Sydney, 8 percent are members of minority groups, 67 percent are Virginian and almost 89 percent are from the South.)

On the other hand, gay Hampden-Sydney graduates participated in a recent seminar on gay issues. And a theater teacher, Shirley Kagan, a Williams College graduate from New York who considers herself a feminist and a liberal, says she finds her students at Hampden-Sydney to be curious, open-minded and responsive.

"They gain something from being in their comfort zone, but, of course, it can cut both ways," she said. "When they get out of here they'll be dealing with women and minorities on a larger basis than they do here. We do our best to prepare them for that."

A third of Hampden-Sydney freshmen leave before graduating, and if most of the rest seem more than satisfied with the experience, others say the isolation can be suffocating. Even on a weekday, the campus seems oddly empty. Asked where everyone was, one junior, Mark McDonald, said: "Everyone's sitting around their dorms bored. This place can get to you after a while. You should see it on a winter weekend. You can walk from one end of the campus to the other and not see anyone. It's like a ghost town."

That said, Hampden-Sydney and Wabash are close to enough coed and women's colleges to foster a social life, and Morehouse shares a campus (but only in rare cases any classes) with Spelman, a historically black women's college, so being all male during the week doesn't mean being all male on the weekend. And though there's been much soul-searching over the years, all four now seem comfortable with their status.

David Neidorf, the academic dean at Deep Springs, says that 15 years ago most of the students felt the single-sex policy was a mistake. Now, he says, most agree with it. "My suspicion is it has to do with the fact that for kids of this generation, the whole social struggle for women's rights appears to them as if it's already over," he said. "It isn't in some sense, but they don't know that. But that allows them to focus more attention on the personal aspects of single-sex campuses rather than to see them as political issues."

Established in 1917 by L. L. Nunn, a pioneer in the electric-power industry, Deep Springs offers a rigorous, almost ascetic, campus life. On a typical day, students attend classes in the morning, work the afternoon in assigned tasks as, for example, ranch hands, cooks or dairymen (first milking: 4:30 a.m.), and go to committee meetings and study in the evening. Students can't leave during the term, and there's a self-imposed ban on alcohol. "I think a reason a lot of people come here is that it's such an intense experience," said David Richter, a second-year student from Santa Cruz, Calif. "We're given so much responsibility, the academics are at such a high level, and the fact that there are no women here is part of that, to a certain extent."

Steven J. Klein, dean of admissions of Wabash, says every applicant has to get over the initial hurdle of the 100-to-0 man-woman ratio. So when admissions colleagues compliment him on having a niche to sell, he replies: "Yes, but it's a niche that no one wants." Still, he says, in his nine years at Wabash, applications have risen from the mid-700's to the 1,300's (about half get in and about 250 enroll as freshmen). And the college is embracing its identity.

"If you look at our literature, say, 10 years ago, we kind of look like any other liberal arts college," he said. "Now we're bold about being a fine liberal arts college for men. We believe we educate men better than anyone else. We want that message up front and center."

Peter Applebome writes the Our Towns column for The Times.