One hundred years ago, Westhampton Lake was much more than a Facebook cover photo. It served as both a physical and metaphorical divide between Richmond men and Westhampton women. Although classes have since integrated and students can live on either side of the lake, the roots of gender separation still remain in what is known as the coordinate college system. Two deaneries, two student governments and two mission statements coexist under one university, though debate over the validity of the system divides the campus community.
“I think the biggest benefit of the coordinate system is that it takes a small community and breaks it down even smaller,” Joe Boehman, dean of Richmond College, said. “When I was in college, I wouldn’t have thought to go to my dean because it was a bigger place and I was one little person. … Here, we don’t look at it that way.”
Both Boehman and Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College, work for the success of University of Richmond students, but they aren’t alone. Both colleges staff associate deans and other individuals with open-door policies. If students have an issue and want support from someone of the same gender, the coordinate college system can usually accommodate them.
An exception to this, and one of the primary arguments against the coordinate system, is when a student doesn’t identify within the gender binary. “If you’re struggling with gender, you shouldn’t have to pick,” freshman Miranda Rosenblum said. While both colleges explore gender as a construct and support individuals who choose to switch colleges, at the end of the day, a student needs to be accounted for, and either Westhampton or Richmond will be printed on his or her diploma.
Common Ground works with both Westhampton and Richmond colleges on providing safe spaces for students uncomfortable within the coordinate system. “Individuals who do not identify with the gender binary must have space and must feel welcome,” said Holly Blake, associate dean for women’s education and development. “This work has started and needs to continue.”
Regardless of their thoughts on the system’s gender binary, most people support having more leadership opportunities on campus. A pillar of Richmond's coordinate system is the abundant number of government positions available for Westhampton and Richmond students, facilitating a multiplicity of voices involved in campus decision-making.
Gigi DeJoy, a Westhampton senior and president of WILL*, said she agreed the system armed women with leadership experience, but wondered if it was only preparing women to compete against other women after graduation. The sentiment is echoed across campus, as students question the relevance of the coordinate system.
When asked what comes to mind when they hear “coordinate college system,” three Richmond College students responded, “useless,” “pointless” and “unnecessary.” Students, such as Claire LeCornu, expressed that they don’t understand why it still exists. The general consensus is that it doesn’t affect daily life, but students still harbor strong opinions about it.
“I think it’s one of the worst parts of Richmond,” freshman Alex Song said. “It makes it hard for girl and guy friend groups.” Song is among many students who bemoan single-sex housing for freshmen. When first arriving on campus, students are separated for orientation activities, and some feel the homogenous housing perpetuates this divide. “We’ve been shown over and over again throughout history that separate but equal is a convenient fiction,” DeJoy said.
Others report an enhanced sense of belonging as a Westhampton or Richmond student within University of Richmond, citing traditions such as Proclamation Day and Investiture as ways of bonding with peers. “It’s a way of maintaining tradition,” Richmond College student Chris Brodsky said.
Inclusive or exclusive, traditional or outdated, the coordinate college system is here, and it affects individuals at different capacities. “I think people can choose how much they want to identify with their specific college or not identify with them,” DeJoy said. “It hasn’t affected me very significantly.”
Contact reporter Kayla Solsbak at firstname.lastname@example.org