At Mary Baldwin, a Focus on Diversity

Oct 20, 2016

Mary Baldwin College officially changed its name to Mary Baldwin University at the end of August, an event that also kicked off a yearlong celebration of the traditional women’s college 175th anniversary.  With so much history behind them, combined with the attempted closing in 2015 of fellow women’s school Sweet Briar, the name change reflects a drive to stay competitive in an increasingly co-ed world. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler went to Staunton to find out why this women’s college still matters.

Just inside the Admin building at the Mary Baldwin campus in downtown Staunton, there is a stack of yearbooks called "The Bluestocking."  The 1961 edition features a large black and white photo of the entire student body, all women, all white, lined up outside this very building wearing white gowns and white gloves. School administrators Crista Cabe and Liesel Crosier point out a glass display of Mary Baldwin memorabilia on the second floor.

CRISTA CABE:  We’ve got the early May Day ceremony….

LIESEL CROSIER:  Yeah, we had a May Day queen. [It was] Very old fashioned, celebrating….beauty.

The images may no longer be relevant but they point to one of the lingering stereotypes about women’s colleges. That they’re vestiges of the past, right up there with cotillion clubs. Women now outnumber men on college campuses nationwide, so the notion of a “ladies only” school can seem a little anachronistic. It’s a perception that was reinforced by the 2015 closing, then reopening, of another Virginia women’s school, Sweet Briar. Last fall’s enrollment at Mary Baldwin was down 5 percent. It edged up 1 percent above normal this September. It’s a tricky time for women’s colleges.

PAMELA FOX:  …We can’t stand still…

That’s Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox. She’s been aggressively pursuing a strategy to avoid the Sweet Briar effect. We spoke at an event celebrating the school’s official name change from College to University at the end of the summer.

FOX:  We’ve changed our name four times. Each time reflects what the institution is today and how it’s evolved.

Think about it: COLLEGE says secluded, rarefied. UNIVERSITY says inclusiveness, diversity.

In fact, expanding diversity – ethnic, racial, gender -- has been a key driving initiative to stay competitive. Granted, Mary Baldwin has been pushing diversity since the '70s, but that effort has intensified with the declining enrollment of the past handful of years. Here’s University Relations Vice President Crista Cabe again.

CABE:  We decided very deliberately to create a student population that looks like America. It was the right thing to do. It was also a good business decision. We’re not a rich institution. We don’t have deep resources. We need to make sure we maintain enrollment and that means reaching new markets.

Right now, Mary Baldwin is 51 percent non-white. Time magazine ranked it as one of the most ethnically/racially diverse campuses in the country.

So how does a women’s college with a long, white glove pedigree attract students from such diverse backgrounds? Lois Williams is vice president of enrollment.

LOIS WILLIAMS:   It’s simply looking at your data and seeing where your students come from and going back to those same areas to continue to recruit from them.

CABE:  We paid a lot of attention to how we portrayed ourselves in our print materials…. Over time, as critical mass of minority populations grew on campus, our visit days have become one of our best selling points because students come here and they know that it’s not just one picture selected but really is the way we live everyday.

Optics may draw new students to Mary Baldwin, but it’s not what keeps them there. One thing you hear talking to students is that developing leadership skills is a fundamental part of the Mary Baldwin experience. Megan Edwards is an African American and fourth year marketing and communications major.

MEGAN EDWARDS: I’m a member of the president society, student government. I’ve been a leader in the classroom, as well as a TA. So all of the leadership opportunities here at Mary Baldwin I feel are a lot more competitive and a lot harder to obtain at bigger university.

You get used to being a leader at MBU, in other words. You’re expected to be in charge of something. This can be particularly appealing to women of color.

CABE:  If somebody comes from a historically marginalized population, they find a great sense of confidence in them and a sense of their own potential which can then be realized.

A big incubator of this trait on campus is the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, the only all female cadet corps in the country. It’s 64 percent non-white.  Fathia Mohammed, 21, is a Muslim-American and triple major. She was asked to serve as an academic advisor to the entire corps.

FATHIA MOHAMMED:  I didn’t think I could lead while being suffocated with all these classes. But after I got into it, it wasn’t that overwhelming.

On her watch, the GPA of the entire corps went up.

MOHAMMED: Motivating women to be a leader an especially in an all-women's environment is really important.  There are a lot of women, specifically Muslim women, because of their environment, don’t have a voice. I would love to stand up for them and be their voice.