In the World of Women’s Colleges

January 12, 2011

Professor travels around globe to explore role of female-only institutions

By Nicole Geary

Step inside Kristen Renn’s office and it’s hard to miss the affinity for her undergraduate alma mater.

There are posters and pendants from Mount Holyoke College on the wall and a calendar of campus photos near her desk.

It’s been 25 years since Renn, an associate professor in the College of Education and nationally known scholar of student affairs, graduated from the world’s oldest women-only institution in Western Massachusetts.

But Mount Holyoke is where she first felt the empowering potential of academia.

“I would not be here if not for Mount Holyoke,” she says. “It’s the reason I went into higher education.”

And now, during a career spent studying issues of college student identity and student affairs administration, women’s colleges and universities have become the focus of an exciting worldwide research journey for Renn.

Although the number of female-only institutions in the United States continues to shrink, women’s colleges and universities are thriving in places such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Renn has explored 15 campuses on five continents so far on a mission to determine the current status – and value – of women’s colleges in a global context.

With little known about the topic beyond U.S. borders, she will be the first to piece together a trans-national picture showing how contemporary women’s colleges fit within societies and systems of postsecondary education.

“Single-sex institutions provide a window into the status of women in education overall,” said Renn, who spends four to five days interacting with students and faculty at each site, from a rural outpost of 60 pupils in Kenya to a 20,000-student campus in South Korea.

“The situation of women in higher education is really country- and region-specific.”

‘The world needs to know’

Not surprisingly, Mount Holyoke was instrumental as Renn’s ambitious research plan unfolded.

She first began interviewing leaders from international women’s institutions during a 2008 conference of Women’s Education Worldwide (WEW), an association of approximately 50 women’s colleges and universities around the world that was co-founded by former Mount Holyoke President Joanne Creighton and Smith College President Carol Christ.

According to Renn, Women’s Education Worldwide has provided an unprecedented opportunity to study women’s higher education from a comparative perspective. She established contacts that facilitated her case studies in the United Arab Emirates, China, Kenya, Australia, Korea and Japan, as well as forthcoming trips this spring to Bangladesh and India.

Renn also conducted an exploratory study in 2008 while attending a leadership conference at Mount Holyoke, sponsored by WEW, for students from women’s colleges around the world.

Individuals often question why women’s colleges are still needed (and financially viable) in North America and Europe, where women account for the majority of postsecondary students and may attend all but a few remaining all-male institutions.

However, complex issues of culture and access – to safe places to learn, affordable tuition, specific curricula or leadership opportunities, for example – support the existence (and new development) of female-only schools in many other parts of the globe. WEW represents all sizes and types.

“People may think of women’s institutions as a dying breed, whereas actually there are some wonderful stories about the creation of institutions in places that are quite inhospitable in general to women’s education,” said Creighton, who serves as WEW project director and is now on sabbatical from Mount Holyoke. “Even though we are long-standing institutions, we have a lot to learn from these emerging institutions.”

Renn, as Creighton says, is one of the lone “ground-breakers” answering the critical need for international, comparative research in the area. Her research has been funded by the MSU College of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

“I think Mount Holyoke and all of the other institutions will be exceedingly interested in her findings,” Creighton said. “The world needs to know what’s happening in women’s education.”

Tension and bigger questions

Driven, she says, but not clouded, by her own life-changing experience in a women’s college, Renn has devoted one semester on sabbatical, as well as summer and spring breaks to hop on airplanes and see what role women’s institutions are really serving.

In Japan, for example, she learned the small number of women’s institutions that have persisted give young women unparalleled access to female professors as role models, particularly in high-tech fields.

In Dubai, women have no coeducational universities to choose from, unless their families can afford a private option. And, in other places, where coed is the predominant model, women’s institutions often provide the only program in a particular area of study, or at least a more welcoming environment to study in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Creating “access” to higher education, at least in the legal or historical sense, no longer seems to be the main impetus for female-only institutions, Renn said. Today the argument for their existence is based more on addressing a mix of economic and cultural factors, depending on where you look.

Perhaps the one common thread is symbolism, she said.

“There is a tension that is sometimes spoken and sometimes unspoken between traditional gender roles and this vision for what women could be,” Renn said.

There are legitimate questions about why we still have women’s colleges in the U.S… But, in other countries, the question is why do we send women to college at all? The answers to both of those questions raise other questions for us about equality in society.”

‘The whole community benefits’

Jillian Kinzie, who serves as associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University-Bloomington, said Renn’s round-the-world project comes at a time when researchers and university leaders in the U.S. are becoming increasingly interested in the status of postsecondary education from global perspectives.

More importantly, learning about international women’s colleges will help shape our understanding about the role of special-mission institutions in the U.S., including Historical Black Colleges and Universities, military academies and religious colleges.

“I think it’s important to maintain and not try to homogenize institutions for all students,” said Kinzie, lead author of a well-known 2007 study that showed students at women’s colleges benefit from greater access to leadership opportunities and more meaningful interactions with faculty when compared with peers attending coed institutions.

“They are valuable forms of undergraduate education and what Dr. Renn is doing is really important to empowering women worldwide.”

Kinzie said she would have attended a women’s college – which do tend to be elite, private and expensive in the U.S. – if she would have known more about them.

Renn, who for 29 years has had to defend going to a women’s college, is hoping her project will at least provide guidance and some shared understanding for the administrators of women’s institutions as they face current and expected challenges.

She will wrap up travel and data analysis by summer 2011. She plans to publish additional journal articles and a book that will summarize and document her journey.

She knows how her personal and professional aspirations were shaped by attending a women’s college, where she was “taken seriously intellectually, as a leader.”

And now Renn has seen firsthand – perhaps more clearly than any other scholar of higher education – how women’s institutions are striving to educate, elevate and protect women within unique contexts from nearly every corner of the globe.

“I would like to come up with something useful for the leaders as they continue to make the case for the enduring value of their institutions, whether their case is about access or student leadership or faculty development,” she said. “There is evidence that when women are better educated, the whole community benefits.”

Joanne Creighton

Mount Holyoke president to speak at MSU

Former Mount Holyoke president and Women’s Education Worldwide co-founder Joanne Creighton is expected to present a seminar at Michigan State University during spring 2011. Visit the Center for Higher and Adult Education for more information.

On the Web

Kristen Renn

Women’s Education Worldwide