London, Dec. 3: An Oxford don has made a 10,000-mile round trip from China to England in a desperate attempt to stop the governing body of Oxford’s last women’s college from voting to admit men.
Laura Newby, a lecturer in Chinese at St Hilda’s, was on a sabbatical in Beijing when news reached her that her vote might be crucial in maintaining the college’s single-sex status.
Despite a fear of flying, Newby agreed to return to England for a single day so that she could cast her vote at a special meeting of the governing body this lunchtime.
If the dons vote for change, it will bring to an end more than 100 years of single-sex education at St Hilda’s, which was founded in 1893 by Dorothea Beale, the principal of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Newby’s extraordinary last-minute journey is the latest twist in a game of cat and mouse which has caused deep divisions within St Hilda’s as rival factions compete over the future direction of the college.
Last March the college’s 33 fellows failed by just one vote to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority required to change the college statutes and admit men.
When a second vote was called for this week many observers believed the motion would be carried as Newby, a known supporter of single-sex status, was away in China, and so ineligible to vote under college rules.
Now that Newby has returned from China no one connected with the college was daring to predict the outcome yesterday. “Two fellows abstained last time — they could now hold the key — but it’s too close to call,” a source said.
Lady English, the college principal, is known to favour the introduction of men, principally on financial grounds as the demands of equal opportunities legislation has made recruiting staff difficult and expensive.
However, Lady English has been accused in some quarters of trying to stage-manage the vote in favour of change.
Last month undergraduates at St Hilda’s passed an unprecedented motion of no-confidence in Lady English, saying that her behaviour in this matter “must no longer be tolerated”.
Some undergraduates at the college say they are angry that their principal appears determined to force through mixed-status against the wishes of students.
Last March undergraduates voted to remain single-sex by a margin of 57 per cent in favour. Among graduate students the figure was as high as 80 per cent.
Yesterday sources at the college were alleging that the pro-change camp were “trying everything” to get a positive result. According to one, another fellow who resigned from the college after going on maternity leave last summer has been told she is eligible to vote on the grounds that — technically speaking — she remains under contract to the college until December 31 this year.
“What is making everyone so angry is the manner in which this vote is being handled,” a member of the “no change” camp said yesterday.
“It seems like certain fellows want change regardless of the democratic will.”
No one at the college was prepared to give a formal comment on today’s vote.
Student groups, supported by a delegation from Cambridge where two colleges, New Hall and Newnham, remain single-sex, are planning demonstrations against the vote.
Supporters of going mixed say admitting men will drive up academic standards at the college which, for many years, has struggled at the bottom end of the Norrington Table — the unofficial ranking of academic standing among Oxford’s colleges.
Opponents, however, argue that a single-sex college is vital to promote the interests of women in Oxford — only about one in 10 of the university’s professors are women — and provide opportunity to those women who cannot be educated in a mixed environment for religious and cultural reasons.