Thursday, May 31, 2018

Admitting men boosted Midway Univ., and changed its culture; some women weren't happy, but have adjusted

Midway University is pictured in a photograph taken from a drone aircraft and published in The Lane Report.
By Sarah Ladd and Sarah Landers
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Midway University’s decision to become completely coeducational two years ago has settled in, turned around the school’s finances, and brought several improvements to the campus. But it was fully implemented earlier than initially planned, and was met with some skepticism from female students, who now seem to have adjusted.

The private school’s trustees voted in May 2016 to make it co-educational, welcoming male resident undergraduates for the first time since its founding as the Kentucky Female Orphan School in 1847.

The trustees did not expect to open housing to men until January 2017, university spokeswoman Ellen Gregory said. But with the closing of St. Catharine College near Springfield, Midway saw an opportunity to recruit male athletes who required on-campus housing, so it had to change plans quickly and house them in fall 2016.

The sudden change drew backlash from some female students who were interviewed last fall.

Taylor Stephenson, a Midway senior studying psychology, said she hated the decision and its effect on the campus residence halls.

“I resented once they told us that they were living on the first floor and half of another floor,” Stephenson said. “It rocked us all. We all had to change living arrangements and everything.”

Equine science major Victoria Nader enrolled at Midway during the first year it accepted men. She said the university was not prepared for the influx of new students. “If you lived on campus, it was chaos,” Nader said.

The two dormitories, which have rooms designed for triple occupancy but had each been housing one or two students, got more crowded with third occupants when the men arrived. Nader said that came as a surprise to many female students. She said the university hinted that some people might end up in triples, but students didn’t know that they all would until they actually got room assignments.

Ellen Gregory
Gregory said the news should not have been a surprise. The university, she said, sent out “very clear communication” via email, telling students that men would be in dorms in fall 2016 and that some rooms would need to house three students.

Normally, traditional student athletes are required to live on campus.  Gregory said the university waived this requirement and allowed upperclassmen the choice to live off campus in an effort to smooth over the dorm situation.

Katherine Morgan, a senior biology major, said this spring that the dorm situation had a bright side: renovations. The community spaces in the residence halls have been refurnished, and more campus-wide events have encouraged students to mingle.

“There wouldn't have been renovations done to our facilities without their arrival,” Morgan said. “The arrival of the men also did not force anyone out of living arrangements.”

New arrangements, new attitudes

But the arrangements were different. The community bathroom in one residence hall required extra security measures to keep male and female students from co-occupying it.

Stephenson said she didn’t think Midway was ready to go co-ed, and said most male students brought drama. She described the school in its all-female days as being relaxed and friendly. That changed when men arrived, she said.

“Some girls started wearing makeup or started dressing nicer once the boys came to campus, and it just changed the way Midway felt,” Stephenson said.

“You never see casual in classes now,” Kathryn Lawler, a senior business major from Scott County, told Russ Brown of The Lane Report for a major story about the university's turnaround. “Every girl puts on a little bit of mascara or something.”

Morgan told the Midway Messenger that only about half the female students changed habits to appeal to male students.

One student who asked to remain anonymous, due to the controversy, agreed that men on campus “do cause some issues between girls, for obvious reasons.” The student said she was originally angry about the announcement, but she and others have since decided they are happy to have men on campus.

Morgan said the school going co-ed did not greatly affect her, and she was still able to be involved around campus. “Of course, it was a wake-up call when seeing men around campus, because this is not something that I had been used to, but it was definitely easier to adjust to than originally planned,” she said.

Nader said she is also pleased with the change, but does worry about the interpersonal drama that’s been brought to the university. She and Stephenson also expressed concern for how the new men’s athletic teams may affect the female teams’ turf.

“I do not think Midway was ready for co-ed,” Stephenson said. “We only have two dorms on campus and some off-campus housing. And now they are adding in more sports, and we just don’t have the space for that.”

“I personally wish Midway didn’t go co-ed, but I know they did it for the money that we desperately needed,” Stephenson said.

An existential decision

The change made a big difference at a critical time. In 2015, the last year when only women could attend traditional daytime undergraduate programs, total enrollment had sunk to 1,043, and only 261 students were traditional daytime undergraduates. The enrollment in fall 2017 was 1,217, up 17 percent from two years earlier, and traditional undergraduate enrollment was 489, up 87 percent. Almost one-third of traditional undergrads are men.

Gregory said being all-female campus had left Midway in a narrow market. Only 2 percent of high-school women say they want their higher education to be only with women, and the number of women-only colleges in the U.S. has declined from 200 many years ago to fewer than 50, she said.

“So, for us, it really was kind of fighting an uphill battle of, you know, this limited population that wanted that, and so we saw it as an opportunity to really increase our reach,” she said.

While the students interviewed said they realized the reasons for the decision, they still have misgivings about some ramifications. Nader said she recognized the university’s need to survive, but thinks the university wants to push the men’s sports teams in order to draw in more students.

Gregory said the addition of male sports teams benefited the campus quickly, and the campus was able to bring some of the St. Catharine coaches along with the athletes. A school closing is “very sad, but it’s also, you feel really good that you’re able to provide that easy transition for them,” Gregory said.

She said that while the university did rapidly grow men’s sports, it also grew women’s sports. “While that took attention, the university always remained focused on academics and serving all of our students,” she said. “Athletics has allowed us to stabilize our traditional undergraduate enrollment over the last couple of years and with that we have been able to offer more co-curricular programming for all students, expand our Midway Research Symposium for student research, hire new faculty members and continue expanding our graduate programs.”

Nader said the equine program is losing pasture space in order for the men’s baseball team to get a field on campus, which will take away one of the nicer hayfields.

Gregory said the university is on 200 acres, 70 of which are devoted to pastures for the equine program. She said the decision to use the equine pasture for the baseball team came after a conversation in which the equine program was highly involved, and the decision was made with all programs in mind. “With 200 acres and 70 of that in pasture, there is going to be a minimal impact on the pastureland,” she said.

A new experience

Morgan said the addition of male sporting events has helped school spirit. “The attendance of social and sporting events on campus has increased greatly and as a whole the student body [seem] to be enjoying their college experience as a whole more,” she said. 

Gregory said she is especially proud of the student athletes’ overall 3.08 grade-point average, and said that additional enrollment is always good for the university.

Despite the additional students, Gregory said the university did not hire more employees, other than the men’s coaches. She said the change on campus has “all been very positive. . . . For us it was a matter of ‘This is the right course for this institution at this point in our history’ in order to have the enrollments that we need.”

She said that since going co-ed, there has been an increased vibrancy on campus, illustrated by athletic events where students cheer each other on. “They’re all fans of each other, they all support each other,” she said. “It’s amazing to me, the extra life on campus, the student engagement.”

Gregory said the university, which was recently re-accredited for 10 years, has about 110 full-time employees and is raising money for three major improvements: a field house with an auxiliary gym for practices, extra office space for coaches and a training room for the 100 athletes expected this fall; a new baseball field for a team that now uses a field in Versailles; and additional renovations to the residence halls.

Some dorm renovations are being done over the summer, and the plans include updates to all the residence bathrooms, Gregory said: “That will be a little bit of a surprise to the students who get back in the fall.”

Editor's note: Most newspapers might not publish a story that is mainly about an event that happened two years ago, but the Midway Messenger is not a typical newspaper, and Midway University is not a typical topic, as a private institution that has faced challenges in the past decade. The Messenger depends largely on the work of University of Kentucky journalism students, and the initial reporter on this story had a demanding schedule in the fall semester and was unable to complete the reporting before the semester ended. No students were available to complete the story in the spring semester. It was completed by a summer intern for the Messenger. --Al Cross, editor and publisher

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