Deep Springs, Equality, and Soccer

———–Final Draft, Argument Paper. “Coed: Esse Aut Non Esse.”—————

How do education and our younger culture differ today, from a hundred years ago? What influenced one man to write explicitly in his trust “for the education of promising young men,” and how morally and legally bound is a college to follow the wishes of its founder and visionary, however long ago he lived?

Deep Springs College lies off of California Route 268, a patch of dubious green in the middle of Deep Springs Valley’s high desert; a working ranch and college an hour away from the nearest “civilization”. The college has a small student body, intense academics, and mandatory labor; tuition free, isolated, self-governed, highly selective, completely unique- and all male. In 2011, however, the decision to begin the process of going coed was reached by the Trustees and the Deep Springs community. Only one word stands in the way of women wishing to enter Deep Springs College: men.

Deep Springs is founded on the belief that labor responsibilities, self-governance, and intense academics prepare young men for a life of service to their communities and to humanity. Students cook, irrigate the fields, slaughter, cowboy, and otherwise manage the cattle operation, as well as convene on Fridays to discuss and vote on issues concerning the college, play soccer, take classes, and study. The 26 students are unable to leave the valley during term due to a strict, self-regulated isolation policy. All of this makes a well-knit brotherhood, where cohabitation abilities are essential to sanity, class participation is high, and failure to meet responsibilities has clear ramifications within the community. Most students go to Deep Springs not because it’s all-male but because it is a unique experience not offered in any other single-sex or coed school. Many would-be applicants decide not to go because it isn’t coed.

I visited Deep Springs for the fourth time of my life this fall. I remember, as a nine year old, the mountains on the way to Deep Springs from Reno, the Sierras crowning the blue horizon, their granite jagged against the immediate sweeping slopes. This time the mountains were dark silhouettes and the night air cold and black. We drove through the canyon into Deep Springs Valley well after dark, the car flying over the road’s rollercoaster rises and falls, rocketing through the single-car wide canyons, high beams on, brothers and I laughing hysterically. Suddenly we broke through into the valley, and the road evened out, and the car was silent again as we drove in the night, the college hidden ahead in the darkness.

When the Trustees of Deep Springs voted to proceed with the process of going coed with a 7-2 vote in the fall of 2011, they and the college plunged headlong into a drawn-out legal battle with the two dissenting trustees, Kinch Hoekstra and Edward Keonjian, and other alumni. On one side, opponents of coeducation stand behind the Trust written by L. L. Nunn. The other front, and the broad majority, argues that coeducation would benefit the college by increasing intellectual diversity, by giving a more realistic representation of the outside world, and by advancing the educational purposes of the college.

L. Nunn founded Deep Springs College in 1917 based upon his experience training and educating young men as employees for his company, Telluride Power. He wrote the Deed of Trust for Deep Springs two years before his death in 1925, a constitution and endowment to be protected by the Board of Trustees. The current legal struggle for coeducation focuses on the potential power the trustees have to interpret or alter the Trust, particularly one line: “for the education of promising young men”. These seven words determine the fate of coeducation at Deep Springs. It isn’t a new idea there; coeducation first came up in the 60s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the topic came to a head. The college faced financial ruin and the divisive subject was dropped until the college rebuilt itself.

Back in the 21st century, the legalities have progressed slowly. The first petition for coeducation, filed in 2012, focuses on interpretation but not modification of the trust. The opponents replied with this objection: “The Trustees are legally (and morally) bound to carry out the purpose of the Trust. They are not permitted to substitute their preferences for the express stipulations of the trustor L. L. Nunn”. But isn’t it the trustee’s job, to not only protect the trust, but to change it when the times necessitate it? The objectors stand behind the belief that the trustees are bound by the trust and cannot change it, but the trustees are legally bound not only to serve the trust, but also the beneficiary.

The first purpose of the trust is to “provide for and carry on educational work… similar to and in development of the work already inaugurated… at Deep Springs, in good conscience and exercise of [the Trustees’] best judgment…” which is later modified by “for the education of promising young men”. An all-male student body, although a founding principle, is secondary to the educational work being carried on at Deep Springs. The original petition for coeducation was ultimately turned down, and in response the Trustees issued this statement: “We strongly believe that [coeducation] is the best policy for achieving L.L. Nunn’s purpose for Deep Springs, best for its students both now and in years to come, and the best means to assure the future viability and relevance of the institution… We will continue to pursue a legal path to coeducation.”

There are important historical reasons for Deep Spring’s founding as an all-male institution not as significant or valid socially today. It is true, as opponents point out, that coeducation was prevalent at the time, with 70% of women in college enrolled in a coeducational school, and that the rate of women and men going to college was more or less equal in the early 1900s. This is not to say that the education that women were receiving was equal and without much social discrimination. Women took classes in home economics, teaching, and nursing, and while other degrees were pursued, social restrictions often did not allow them to apply their learning to ‘manlier’ jobs; women could only become “successful” through marriage.

Beginning during WWI and continuing into the 1920s women gained new freedom of expression leading to flapper culture. College was a largely social affair for both genders, “petting” parties were prevalent, and with the end of prohibition young women established and embraced drinking and smoking. Older generations were shocked by this new, sinful lifestyle of materialism and sexuality. Obviously this influenced L. L. Nunn’s founding ideals, all-male student body, and his location of Deep Springs as far away as possible from modern debauchery. Although sexuality is still a large part of our society today, Deep Spring’s ideals of genuine academic involvement and meaningful labor are already proven to find people profoundly dedicated to the purposes of the college and to their education; these same ideals would prove the same for women seeking to come to Deep Springs.

The college’s geography hasn’t been entirely successful in isolation from distraction, either. Women, denied as students, are a recurring and important part of the “staffulty” and neither is homosexuality written off in the trust. L. L. Nunn himself was gay, although not openly. There have been affairs between students and female faculty, and jealousy or dislike between staff and students due to real or perceived sexual advances. Gay students are not uncommon. I won’t say that the presence of distraction is inherently admirable, but a single-sex education offers an unrealistic environment; the real world is not free from distraction.

Although L. L. Nunn’s unique vision of higher education has shaped the college’s ideals and the young men who have studied and worked here, this place and its legacy and history are bigger than any one person or gender. It is the work and dedication of the people, both men and women, who have called this place home over the past hundred years that has made it what it is; it is sacred ground. That’s why I can’t fault either Kinch Hoekstra or Ed Keonjian for their decision to fight coeducation; I understand that they are protecting something important to them. Yet it is important to me too. The fact is at this point women aren’t allowed an opportunity to become part of something so utterly unique because of something they didn’t choose, their gender, and because of two people, with the privilege of being male, standing behind one word.

I wonder how this story would have been different if the opponents of coeducation had daughters. Their fight would have ended a long time ago. At least for me, this whole conflict in itself isn’t about feminism, or equality, or women, but about one simple truth. Men and women are not, on a fundamental human level, different. Our bodies and our experiences and our cultures make us different, but we are all singularly human, which is something alienated in our age of materialism and personal image and factional distrust; we all have the same basic goals and hopes for our collective humanity. I’m trying to understand my feelings towards the whole coeducation debate, and this truth is probably the closest I am going to get. If we all worship something, then I worship this word, human, in its singularity and simple, inexplicable power. I don’t believe that coeducation is the right choice, or that women have a right to this place, or that we should have a right to this place. We don’t, and we shouldn’t. I simply believe that it is the human choice; human as in singular, as in innately moral, as in the humanity which we are to serve.

Back at Deep Springs, the sun is going down on the second day. I am waiting near the main building for an alumni meeting on coeducation. In front is the main circle, a field of grass with two goals, where a couple of students have started kicking a soccer ball around. With a second’s hesitation I join them. Introduce myself. Soon more guys come and a soccer game is going. I score a goal, make a few good passes. I think I’ve surprised them, impressed them. I’ve been playing soccer coed my entire life. To me, my gender and that of others is something arbitrary, a second thought.

These guys play soccer with the same unadulterated passion that they dedicate to their academics here, their work. This dedication is something rare, and something that I crave in my peers. I’ve never been in a place where people genuinely care about their learning and go about their everyday work with enthusiasm, but it is something that I have yearned and searched for. I haven’t seen it anywhere but here. These are the people who are fighting for coeducation. In all likelihood they won’t be here to see it, but they have faith that what they are doing is the right choice for this place, and that the fight will continue.

On November 19th, 2014, the Inyo County Superior Court released a statement of decision on a second petition, allowing that the trust’s wording should be modified from “young men” to “young people”. This doesn’t mean the legal struggle is over. Tentative is the word to describe the reaction to this small but solid victory. There are still a few more years until Deep Springs is ready for coeducation, but then there are still a few more years until I am ready for Deep Springs.

As the dinner bell rings and the alumni come out from the coeducation meeting, we keep playing. The sky grows dark and the ground is cold on our bare feet before the game finally breaks up. It’s my last night here for now. I will return.


Bailey, Stephen. “L. L. Nunn: A Memoir”. Ithaca: Cayuga Press, 1993. Print.

Deep Springs College Website. Deep Springs College. Web. Access 11-5-14.

“Early College Women: Determined to be Educated”. St. Lawrence County, NY Branch, American Association of University Women. Web. Access 11-5-14.

Jaschik, Scott. “Women Blocked at Deep Springs”. Inside Higher Ed. Publish 1-11-13. Access 11-5-14.

Koc, Elif. “My Dream College Won’t Accept Me Because I’m A Woman”. The Atlantic. Publish 1-17-13.    Access 11-5-14.

Nunn, Lucien Lucius. “Constitution of Deep Springs and Deed of Trust” (“The Gray Book”). Print.

Goldin, Claudia, Katz, & Lawrence, Kuziemko. “The Homecoming of American College Women: The Reversal of the College Gender Gap”. Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol 20. 11-4-6

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s