Over the course of my career, I have been on hundreds of college campuses, including some of the most beautiful ones in the country. I’m not easy to impress with campus aesthetics, but I was admittedly gobsmacked when I was treated to a campus tour of Mount Holyoke College by its President, Sonya Stephens. Mount Holyoke’s campus is a green oasis of 800 acres and while I don’t think we walked them all, we walked plenty–and one vista was just more gorgeous than the last.
Enrollment at the college typically numbers about 2,100, though this fall those numbers are down about 100 students from that target. Mount Holyoke attracts a very large international population– around 27% of all students hail from abroad– and impediments to foreign students coming here accounts for most of the enrollment decline. When I asked Dr. Stephens what she worries about most in the future, it was exactly that issue — the uncertainty of what the lasting effect of our country’s anti-immigrant policies will be.
Founded in 1837 as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the college is the oldest of the Seven Sisters, an elite group of all-women’s colleges once popularly known as the female Ivy League. (Two of those seven, Radcliffe and Vassar, have since become co-ed.) I had assumed from the look and size of the campus that Mount Holyoke was one of the wealthiest of the remaining five, but as President Stephens put it so eloquently, “We are healthy, not wealthy.” Well, such things are relative of course. Mount Holyoke’s endowment is close to $780 million but Smith, by comparison, has more than twice that amount. Both seem mighty healthy to me!
The college went fully remote in March and has stayed that way ever since. A decision about the spring will be coming shortly. If Mount Holyoke does bring students back, the cost for testing alone will be $1.3 million dollars. Even though students are all learning remotely, the campus wasn’t empty. About 150 students have remained, either because they couldn’t return to their home country or because they feared if they left, they might not be able to return. Other students’ home circumstances meant they were safer and healthier on campus.
I think it’s fair to say, at least in my experience (and I am a trustee at Spelman College), that women’s colleges appreciate tradition more than other schools. From an ice-cream special at the grave of founder Mary Lyon, to every graduate dressed in white during a weeklong graduation party, I heard a number of wonderful examples of such traditions at Mount Holyoke. Sounds like something my daughters would have totally loved.
Listen to my conversation with the uber-articulate President Stephens on the challenges currently facing small private colleges –even the healthiest of them.