Boys in the Hood

A Decade Ago, a College Took a Bold Step in Survival

By Kate Poindexter | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.25.14 – Feature

There are professional challenges of all kinds but what Ronald Volpe faced in the early part of this century was beyond crisis. Volpe became president of Hood College in 2001 with the goal of leading the small private liberal arts college with an outstanding academic reputation back to fiscal and educational prosperity.

“When I first came here, I came to preserve a women’s college,” he says. But shortly after his arrival, the magnitude of the school’s troubles became apparent, and they were nearly overwhelming. Enrollment was down, facilities were crumbling, the budget was stretched and even accreditation was threatened. There were looming lawsuits from contractors and banks. The college was forced to dip into the endowment for day-to-day operations and it was a matter of weeks before the school was not going to make payroll, he says.

Things were so dire that Volpe found himself, at the direction of the college’s governing Board of Trustees, seeking extraordinary assistance from Bill Brody, then president of John’s Hopkins University. “Do you want to take over Hood?” Volpe asked his Hopkins colleague. The answer was no. He had a similar conversation with Pat Stanley, then president of Frederick Community College. Again, the answer was no.

Professor Aldan Weinberg was one of 30 to 40 faculty members convened to study the crisis. “In the late 1990s into 2000, Hood was in very serious trouble on several fronts. Enrollment was down, dorms were not full; the campus seemed deserted. Into that situation arrived Ron Volpe. He could smell the coffee,” says Weinberg, a journalism professor at the college for 29 years.

Volpe says he consulted with students, faculty, staff, alumnae, board members, donors and his counterparts at other schools and eventually presented the board with three options: One, do nothing and the school will close; two, transition to full coeducation in the next year, allowing men to live on campus—opening the campus to a new source of revenue; and three, make a slower coeducation transition in two years.

The Board of Trustees chose the third option. “The Board voted: Do it now,” Volpe says. And like that, the school established as The Woman’s College of Frederick in 1893 hurled itself into a new era.

This past June, Volpe, the man who steered the college through its historic transformation a decade ago, announced he would resign in the spring of next year. “He will be extremely hard to replace,” says Philip A. Berkheimer, chairman of Hood’s Board of Trustees. “It’s a tough, tough job, and he had pure leadership skills.” According to Berkheimer, Volpe’s steady hand guided Hood from closing. “Had coeducation not have occurred when it did, I don’t think it would have survived,” he said.

There is no question that integrating male students into the college has changed its fortunes. According to Berkheimer, Hood has been running a slight surplus for the past four to five years. Endowments have more than quadrupled and now reach $80 million. An increase in enrollment fueled the successful turnaround. In less than 10 years, the school has nearly doubled its student head count. It now boasts nearly 2,400 students.

“Hood has turned the corner,” Berkheimer says.

Reluctant Change

Despite the financial realities, the shift to coed was met with mixed views on campus when it was first debated. Though men had been attending the school as commuters since 1971, allowing them to live on campus marked a significant cultural shift. “We were not crazy about it,” says Weinberg.

Weinberg has a unique perspective. As a journalism teacher he can certainly report the story, but as the first male commuter student, he lived the story. “I applied, got accepted and started classes in January 1971. For one semester, I was the first and only degree seeking male student at Hood. It was weird, sometimes. Professors would occasionally say,
‘Well Mr. Weinberg, what’s the male perspective on this issue?’ It was impossible to cut class without being noticed. And, I was the subject of a minor media scrum. But I really liked Hood and I was already a voracious reader, so I became an English major and then realized I had a knack for journalism.”

Volpe’s own educational experience provides an interesting twist in coeducation. Gannon University in Erie, Pa., went coed in the 1960s shortly after Volpe graduated with a degree in business administration. (He subsequently earned a master’s degree in business administration from Xavier University and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Pittsburgh.) “We had to bring women to my alma mater and I was not a happy camper,” he recalls.

Olivia White, vice president of student life and dean of students, says that while some female students were understandably upset by Hood’s decision to go coed, there was no mass exodus once the decision was made. “One or two students decided to transfer,” she says. White and Volpe went into the residence halls to explain the upcoming changes and listen to students’ concerns. Most wanted to discuss the logistics of turning the dorms into living spaces that would accommodate the needs of both men and women. “We approached the changes with transparency and open communication,” White says.

One of the early male “pioneers” was Stuart Kaufman Jr., a 2007 graduate who arrived with the first wave of male residents. “I lived in Coblentz Hall, which was convenient on snow days, being right above the cafeteria. I found dorm life to be very welcoming. We were a great big family in Coblentz. The only time I ever heard anything [negative] about men being on campus was from … an upper classman complaining about us getting all new athletic equipment. Someone explained to her—I believe it was Dr. Volpe—that there was no ‘old’ boys’ equipment. That was the end of that.”

“It was a really interesting time on campus,” says Michelle Donati- Grayman, who graduated from Hood in 2004. “After the announcement was made, there were reporters and several area publications buzzing around campus trying to capture reactions from students,” she says. “Initially, I had mixed emotions about the decision. It was sad to say goodbye to a very big part of Hood’s history. However, Dr. Volpe was very open with the students and expressed that without change the college was at risk of closing its doors. As such, I became supportive of this decision, as I knew it was made in the best interest of the college.”

But not all were for the move. Janel Zaluski, who graduated in 1993, was a vocal opponent. “I was part of intense discussions within a social community for Hood alumnae, she says. Some from her group even staged a demonstration on the steps of Coblentz Hall in 2002. But, the passage of time since then has softened the blow for Zaluski, who says she has since seen that the change is working and the school is thriving now. “While I was initially disappointed at the decision of the college to go coed, over the last few years, a friend and alumna’s son became a student at Hood and through his experiences at the college I have found a new perspective of what it means for the Hood community to be a coed campus.”

“I never quite understood the uproar when Hood decided to go coed,” said Deb Reynolds, a 1985 graduate and former editor of Hood’s student newspaper, The Blue and Grey. “After all, men could graduate from Hood as commuters, and I counted among my friends a couple of the guys who majored [in mass communications] with me. Guys were also allowed to be in the dorms all weekend. At the time of the decision to go coed, our alma mater was, I believe, in survival mode. Considering the alternative, it was a great choice.”

But while Reynolds believes Hood’s commitment to providing an excellent liberal arts education and career readiness seems stronger than ever, one of her male colleagues disagrees. “It seems like it lost its academic standards,” said Howard Spiegel, a biology major and former commuter board president who graduated in 1986.

Spiegel says the elimination of some of the school’s programs, particularly in home economics, has left a bad taste in the mouths of some alums, including his wife, a Hood graduate who stopped financial support for the school after the change. Many of his friends studied dietetics and other courses in the now-defunct home economics department and he says the absence of those programs now leaves a hole that hasn’t been filled.
His own children chose to attend other nearby liberal arts colleges. “If you can’t get the alums’ kids to go there, that’s pretty bad,” he says.

Reflecting on his own time at Hood, Spiegel says he felt welcomed as a male student: “I felt like one of the girls, if you will.” But he believes the school’s shift in focus potentially blocks leadership-building experiences for female students. “I saw a lot of my own [female] friends who flourished and wouldn’t have necessarily in a coed school.” He says he believes strongly that the culture of the school has changed, and not for the better. “I don’t know what their hook is anymore,” he says. “I would have preferred that it stay as a women’s college. I thought it was a bit of a copout to throw open the doors.”

Times have changed so much that Mitch Ellison didn’t even know of Hood’s history as a women’s institution when he enrolled after the transition. The 2014 graduate says he chose Hood for its biology program and proximity to Fort Detrick, where his wife was stationed. “I had no idea that Hood used to be an all women’s college. I found out in one of my classes part of the way into my first or second semester. I didn’t really know how great it was going to be but it turned out to be awesome.”

A Modern Campus

The incoming class this month is 55 percent women and 45 percent men, and a diversified student body has brought new academic programs and faculty to Hood. Accounting, nursing, global studies, law and criminal justice, bioinformatics, and cyber security are among the new course offerings and areas of study. (Dean White says Hood maintains an ongoing commitment to educating women and offers a minor in women’s studies.) Seventeen full-time faculty positions have been added since the transition and all full-time faculty members now have doctorial degrees.

Several new buildings have been constructed in the past decade and some of the “classics,” including the dormitories, have been upgraded. All of the dorms and language houses accommodate both men and women, except for Shriner Hall, which remains all-female at the request of a group of financial donors.

The Hodson Science and Technology Center was renovated and enlarged in 2002 and the Whitaker Campus Center is an expanded meeting place for students, faculty and staff. In 2009, a state-of-the-art turf field was installed to accommodate field hockey, soccer and lacrosse and Gambrill gymnasium has been renovated. A new athletic center was also constructed.

In the upcoming school year Hood will launch a search for a new leader, one who will take what he or she is given and mold it to meet the needs of the future. What should be the new focus for the new president? “Constant planning and paying attention to the bottom line,” says board chairman Berkheimer.

As the new academic year approaches, Volpe is getting emotional. The man who Dean White introduces as Hood’s number-one cheerleader is looking back and forward. “I know this was not a job, it was a calling,” he says. His colleagues agree. They say this chapter of Hood’s history—credit or criticism—was defined by Volpe’s leadership. As Weinberg says, “Whatever anybody says, [Volpe] saved the college.”