Deep Springs College, the century-old school where young men read Plato and tend cattle, is on the verge of opening to women.
It’s easy to see Deep Springs College — a tiny, highly selective two-year liberal arts institution just outside Death Valley — as a bastion of tradition. The school was founded in 1917 by electricity tycoon L.L. Nunn to create service-oriented leaders, and in many ways it can seem like a finishing school for intellectual cowboys. The 25 or so students are all male. They spend their days engaging in both manual labor (the college is a working cattle ranch) and classroom discourse (syllabi skew toward the Western canon). Alcohol and drugs aren’t permitted during the seven-week academic terms, and the community enforces a strict isolation policy that prohibits students from leaving the Deep Springs Valley except in cases of emergency or religious observance. Even the drive to the college evokes cinematic scenes of frontier outposts: “You come down from the mountains into the valley and see off in the distance a few kinds of trees and a little cluster of buildings in an otherwise empty desert,” says Sam Contis, who has visited the school a dozen times since March 2013. “I wasn’t quite expecting the sense of scale — how small the campus is in relation to the rest of the space around it. It felt like you could blink and it would almost disappear.”
Deep Springs may be insular and remote, but it’s also a place of flexibility and change. The students are given broad powers to shape their experience. They choose which applicants to admit, they participate in selecting which faculty to hire, and at any time they can rewrite many of the institution’s rules. Since the 1960s, the Deep Springs community has debated whether to open the school to women, with some arguing that the college would be falling short of its mission if it didn’t prepare future leaders of both genders and others arguing that women would upset the all-male camaraderie and introduce romantic distraction. In 2011, the board of trustees put the question to a vote, ruling in favor of coeducation by a margin of 10–2. The two dissenting trustees asked a judge to block the measure, citing Nunn’s Deed of Trust, which stipulated that the college would specifically serve “promising young men.” This past April, a California appeals court sided with the board, which opens the way for Deep Springs to welcome female students as soon as 2018.
Contrary to what one might expect from the inhabitants of such a rugged campus, Deep Springs students don’t always play to type. “Over the course of 24 hours, the students do ranch work, but they also cook and clean and garden,” Contis says. “I wanted to burst the cowboy myth a little bit, to say, look, there are so many ways of existing in this landscape.” We spoke with five recent graduates about what life is really like in the place Deep Springers call “the valley.”