The coordinate college system is a characteristic of both a student’s academic career and social life at the University of Richmond. In recent years, some students have expressed concerns that the system is obsolete because students are placed into colleges based on their gender identity.
UR was founded as Richmond College, a college for men, in 1840. It was not until 1914 that the Westhampton College for women was formed, said Joe Boehman, dean of Richmond College.
“Students are assigned to the colleges based on the gender that they put on the Common App,” Boehman said. “That is done out of the history of the colleges and the history of the university.”
Although the colleges are still based on gender, UR recognizes that many students look at gender as a spectrum, Boehman said. As a result, students are encouraged to tell the administration what college they would feel the most comfortable in, he said.
“There are students who are assigned to Westhampton College who feel more comfortable working in Richmond College, and vice versa,” Boehman said. “As we say all the time, just tell us where you want to be, and we will love you.”
After two years of considering switching colleges, junior Josh Higdon was able to switch from Richmond College to Westhampton College successfully, he said during the Debate and Forensics Council’s panel on the coordinate college system on Nov. 13.
“Speaking for myself, I did not feel supported in Richmond College just because of this under-representation [of the LGBTQ+ community],” Higdon said.
Not all students who want to have been able to change colleges. In March, Eliana Fleischer, UR '20, tried to change from Westhampton College to Richmond College as an act of protest of the coordinate college system. But her request was denied because “the process of switching is there for people who are uncomfortable with their current position” at the college they were assigned to, according to an op-ed she wrote for The Collegian.
Fleischer made it clear to Boehman that she was not uncomfortable in Westhampton College and was trying to switch as a protest to the way the coordinate college system is set up, she said during the Debate and Forensics Council’s panel.
“I was, quite honestly, pretty fed up with the system and wanting to demonstrate that it didn't really matter what I had experienced or what gendered college I identified with, that I should be able to sort of go back and forth as my heart desired if it's really not a gendered system,” Fleischer said.
Despite the gendered entry, members of the panel mentioned how the current deans of Westhampton and Richmond College have opened up the opportunities for students to switch colleges, said Meghna Melkote, president of the Debate and Forensics Council.
"[The deans] have done an excellent job of trying to get rid of that gender binary that may appear upon entry," Melkote said.
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Additionally, during the panel, participants brought up the idea that Richmond College Student Government Association and Westhampton College Government Association should be combined.
In April 2020, the outgoing presidents of RCSGA and WCGA — Mike Laposata and Lindsey Paul, both UR '20 — wrote an open letter to UR students arguing that having two student governments has prevented both associations from being as efficient as they could be were they combined.
“You have two different groups of people talking about what's happening and what they're going to do about it,” Paul said. This leads to the two student governments coming up with different solutions to the same problem, Paul said.
When writing their op-ed, Paul and Laposata envisioned a bicameral government that had an equal number of Richmond College and Westhampton College seats, Paul said. During their time as presidents of WCGA and RCSGA, Paul and Laposata talked to the deans about the structure of this bicameral government, such as having two presidents, chairs of senate and speakers, one for each college, Paul said.
As of right now, Boehman has not heard anything about any changes being made in the near future to the coordinate college system, he said.
Despite the criticism surrounding the way students are admitted to the colleges and the setbacks for members of the student governments, Boehman still believes that the two-college system is overall beneficial.
“I think the biggest advantage of the colleges is that it takes a 3,000-person student body and breaks it down into two smaller student bodies,” Boehman said.
Senior Noella Park, current WCGA president, also sees some positives in having two distinct student governments, despite their flaws, rather than one student government with fewer seats, she said.
“It's really helpful in allowing more student representation and allows increases in the number of student representatives,” Park said.
It does not matter to Boehman how the colleges are divided as long as he gets to help students, he said.
“Bottom line, if the Board of Trustees and the president came down and said, 'We’re still going to maintain these colleges, but we’re going to assign the students differently to them' -- OK, I’m fine with that,” Boehman said. “Our job here is to help students.”
Nevertheless, any kind of change would require a lot of commitment and time, Melkote said.
"It's a lot of questions about gender, a lot of questions about expression and then other questions about the benefits that exist in the system," Melkote said. "We've heard from people that there are benefits to it — more leadership roles, more access to your deans. There are some things like that that people find beneficial and then there are some things that people don't find beneficial. People think that it's a gendered system that can create some harm there as well."
Managing editor Emma Davis contributed to reporting.
Contact features writer Lauren Oligino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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