One of the hardest colleges to get into in the country is in California’s high desert. It’s also one of the most unusual. Students leave Deep Springs College at the end of two years, often for diplomas at an Ivy League school. Along the way, they run a cattle farm and an alfalfa ranch.
The first time I got to Deep Springs was after the dinner bell on a spring night in 2003. I drove up the last bit of dirt road, under the sign, and onto the circular sand-gravel path that surrounds what is now a soccer field. If it were a quad, if it were your quad, at your university, maybe you’d have students playing on that patch of luscious green, too.
My sister used to teach there, hundreds of miles from LA, east off of highway 395. Katie made up names for the final, twisty road over the Westgard pass to the ranch that she drove so often. That’s another thing: Just getting to Deep Springs requires commitment. Staying there for two years requires a dedication to living intensely and thinking very hard about pretty much everything.
Now this school, nearly a century old, is approaching perhaps the biggest change it will ever make: Admitting women.
Deep Springs Professor Jennifer Rapp leads a handful of students to the art studio, by the light of a small lantern and the cold starry sky.
“Wooo…” says Bennett Bergman, before the lights flip on. The long skinny fluorescents are an institutional buzzkill. “What about, is there enough light if we turn off this nasty fluorescent thing,” Rapp says. Students agree. They gather in near dark around low boxes, topped with the lantern, candles, a knife, a stick, and a book of symbols.
The poem they dig into is “The Third Hour of the Night,” written by Frank Bidart. Its themes are creation and destruction.
Even the gods cannot
end death. In this universe anybody can kill anybody
with a stick. What the gods gave me
is their gift, the power to bury within each
creature the hour it ceases.
Everyone knows I have powers but not such power.
If they knew I would be so famous
they would kill me.
I tell you because your tongue is stone.
If the gods ever give you words, one night in
sleep you will wake to find me above you.
A bearded student starts talking. “It seems at times Bidart deplores the visible twin, and maybe this language is too strong,” he says. Rapp murmurs encouragement. The student continues. “It’s the reification of the invisible or essential twin…”
"On Making" is the name of this literature course in which the students also make physical objects of their own, and share them with the class, to think about what making means.
“So, this won’t sound like a diatonic scale that you’d hear from a piano right now,” second year student Cory Myers says. He bonks the wood, from which a sound emerges, not quite hollow, still in development. “In the long run that will be a true chromatic scale.”
Myers unveils a marimba he’s working on, assembled from the college’s scrap wood. Which, as he says, is basically “an instrument I don’t play, using a set of skills I don’t have,” he stops, joining in the laughter with others. “Would you do it any other way, Cory?” Jennifer Rapp says. “No,” Myers says, to another peal of erupting group laughter.
Lucien Lucius Nunn made Deep Springs College differently, and academics are only part of his plan to mold young men into leaders at this desert school.
In the deed of trust, Nunn wrote, in part: “The purpose for which the property hereby conveyed shall be used by said trustees is to provide for the education of promising young men, in a manner emphasizing the need and opportunity for unselfish service, and uplifting mankind from materialism to idealism, to a life in harmony with the creator, in the conduct of which educational work of democratic self government by the students themselves shall be a feature, as is now the case at Deep Springs.”
It’s 4:41 a.m. A cat that seems to live in the student dorm meows, strangely, with a strangled sound. And finally, out of the dorm, comes Zack Stout. His eyes red behind glasses, an hour of sleep under his belt, he has rolled out of bed into a sweatshirt and jacket. So begins the morning dairy run.
A second part of Nunn’s educational plan is work. Every guy owes four hours of labor a day. Stout’s is in the dairy, rinsing out a bucket, soaping up the cows’ udders, milking them, in turn, in rhythm with the other dairy man.
Other students work in the garden, herd cattle, cook, farm, clean. Stout milks three cows twice daily, all of them named before he got here. “Sarah is the most gentle and kind and generally cooperative. Lilith seems like kind of a diva. I don’t really know why,” he adds, as an aside. “And Ruth is generally disgruntled and unhappy with us.”
Dairy men put milk on the boardinghouse table. One of the last things they do on the morning run is share it with the rest of the community: the pigs.
Students have extraordinary power over their education here, under a principle L.L. Nunn called self-governance. It’s up to them to decide where they room and if they can have pets. Students choose the class catalog. For years, they’ve banned leaving the valley during term and outlawed drugs and alcohol.
They deliberate, deeply, about everything that matters to them in this valley. So even though their opinions about coeducation are just that, it’s not surprising that the student body, Stout included, has pondered what would happen if Deep Springs admitted women.
He pauses a minute or so before he answers my question on the subject. I’m forced to accustom myself to his rhythms; it’s as though the hum of a machine in the background grows louder. “Probably the thing I value most about this place is that it’s a supportive community. You become comfortable expressing yourself spontaneously in a variety of ways. You can be a lot of things here and you don't have to worry about how much sex appeal you have,” he says. Another, smaller pause. “One of the things I worry about and with the transition to co-education is the open variety we have to so many different ways of being here could be lost.”
The conversation about coeducation in the Deep Springs community at large came to a head last fall when the college’s board of trustees approved plans to admit women by a 10 to 2 vote.
One of the ten was second year student Ben Shaver, who says his choice to come to Deep Springs “was motivated by a sense that a lot of higher education is aimless.”
This place is not. “Here there is a pretty explicit sense of purpose that the education is geared toward a life of service,” he says. “That’s something we talk about pretty regularly, and amongst ourselves take fairly seriously.”
Shaver and Cory Myers, the other student trustee, emphasize that letting women in isn’t a rejection of their single sex education. Shaver grew up in boarding school and did five years in the military before here. They both tell me that they’ve talked about going co-ed so much, they can’t help but empathize with the side they’re not taking. But Myers and Shaver each says his duty as a trustee is to the school’s success.
“If we’re supposed to be training people for lives of service, it’s hard to do that in a model that’s so different from the outside world,” Shaver says, describing one here “that’s in a lot of ways ignoring half of that world.”
They’re already leaders at Deep Springs, that other half of the world. A woman manages the ranch operations. Several women teach. Trustee Kinch Hoekstra says he values their example.
‘There are women who are smarter than these students,” he says. He’s not kidding. “There are women who are better trained, academically and intellectually. There are women who are just plain tougher.”
But he’s one of two trustees who voted against letting women in. Hoekstra says L.L. Nunn was clear about educating men for lives of service. That’s not illegal. It’s not impossible. Thus it should continue.
“As a trustee I feel the case is extremely clear cut,” he says, adding with a dry laugh, “I find it frustrating that others don’t share this perception of clarity.”
When Hoekstra studied at Deep Springs in the early 1980s, his student body debated coeducation, too. “It’s been a hot topic since the sixties at least,” he says. “I think it’s a very interesting question I’ve engaged in myself since 1982 to ask whether DS would be better if it were coeducational.”
Then, Hoekstra says, he would have admitted women. Now, he says he’s duty bound by Nunn’s original words. “It just seems to me the trustees exceeded their authority in taking up the question in those terms.”
He points to the deed of trust, printed in the Gray Book all students have, and to an essay in a section called “The Purpose.”
He likes these words in particular: “Deep Springs is not conventional in its methods. And any attempt to introduce conventional methods or any radical change would destroy its usefulness all together,” Hoekstra reads.
“I worry that the trustees of Deep Springs have done precisely this sort of thing, which is to introduce conventional methods in a way that would radically change the institution,” says Hoekstra.
Dissenting trustees are opposing the school’s plans to admit women. In papers filed with Inyo County court, one of the people Hoekstra mentions is my sister Katie, who was at Deep Springs in 2003, and again for several years in 2006.
We talk on Skype. “I taught feminism, I taught poetry workshop, I taught American romanticism and transcendentalism,” Katie ticks off. I remind her that on my first visit there, she argued very passionately in favor of the college’s all-male nature.
“Well, l’m sure I did that,” she admits. But Katie says she doesn’t think that way anymore. Instead she cried, with joy, when she learned about the board’s decision by email. “I felt elated and relieved that this institution in which I had worked for so long was opening its doors to my gender after such a long time,” she says.
Trustees say hundreds of people affiliated with the college weighed in about admitting women, in meetings, emails, letters. My sister did not. “I had great faith in the board and in the student community and in the community of alums to go through a process and figure out what they wanted for another generation of Deep Springers,” she says.
These current students have faith in their system, too. Half of them will have packed up and moved on by the time a judge hears the legal dispute over going co-ed in July. That includes second year Eamon Heberlein, who says he first preferred strongly the preservation of the intimate bonds of brotherhood he’s benefited from. “That said, when the vote came, those issues were outweighed by a sense of obligation,” he says. “A sense of feeling the change on the horizon.”
Now the student body is at work on practical, logistical questions, like where women would sleep, and, says first year Rhys Dubin, how women would change the college’s policies on sexual health. “We’re very isolated, and we have to deal with birth control, things like that, that are just necessities in any coed environment.”
I know what you’re thinking. Dubin knows what you’re thinking. His classmates know what we’re all thinking. He’s earnest, yes; not that earnest. But for him, this isn’t about sex.
“You know, this isn’t the start of sexual activity at Deep Springs. Things like that happen," he scoffs, a little, in my direction. "In a lot of ways it’s been good to not only think about radical changes that need to be made but also just ways in which we can make this a basically safer and healthier environment for all those who are involved, whether it stays single sex or it broadens to a co-ed environment.”
Deep Springs President David Neidorf and Chair of the Board of Trustees Dave Hitz sent out a message in early June. The college is accepting applications from women for the fall of 2013, even while the legal dispute of which Hoekstra is a part continues. The college's founding trust controls about $2.5 million of the school's $17 million in investments. Hitz and Neidorf write that Deep Springs simply does not plan to spend that money running the school for the time being. The dispute over the trust and its millions continues in Inyo County court next month.
With a new student body every two years; the institution’s memory is short. At present its keepers are mostly 20-year-olds who sing together while washing up in the boarding house after meals. Loud songs. Absurd songs. Justin Bieber songs.
“Baby, baby, baby oh…like baby baby baby ohhh,” they sing, cracking themselves up.
Younger students here now, like Rhys Dubin, will be gone in a year. With women or not, the songs of a future student body will be their own.
But each student through this valley takes responsibility for this college and for how to serve L.L. Nunn’s education ideals. For Deep Springers, learning about a life of service doesn’t end when school does, and leading a life of service isn’t something they wait to start.
L.L. Nunn asked students why they came into the wilderness. And he wrote this, one of my favorite things: The desert has a deep personality. It has a voice. Great leaders in all ages from Moses to Roosevelt have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen.