When I was a freshman in college, the nearest young woman my age was 40 miles, two mountain ranges and a desert away, in Esmerelda County, Nevada, population 783. That year I had an intense, roller-coaster relationship with Suzanne Vega, which consisted of my listening to her first album over and over. I also learned to butcher a cow.
Deep Springs is one of America’s smallest, most unusual and most elite colleges. It accepts no more than 26 students at a time, who live, work and study together deep in the California desert on a property that stretches 50 square miles. The young men spend two years “in the valley” and go on to finish their degrees at the nation’s most exclusive colleges, about a fourth of them at Harvard. At Deep Springs, in exchange for free tuition, the students work 20 to 30 hours a week doing manual labor, herding livestock on the college’s cattle ranch, milking cows in the dairy, tending to the crops that will be their food, and doing dishes and maintenance. There are technically no adults in charge—the students govern themselves, meeting as a parliamentary group called the Student Body to discipline one another for infractions. They also hire and fire all the faculty and decide which students get accepted.
Put twenty-five 18- and 19-year-old boys deep in the desert, tell them they’re special and give them the responsibility to run their own school? It sounds like a reality show, which is to say, a recipe for disaster, and at times Deep Springs resembles Lord of the Flies. Arguments, whether over cleaning the dairy or the meaning of Nietzsche, get intense. The machinations and debates at Student Body meetings can make an Obamacare town hall look measured and sedate. Over the years, at least one student has managed to run himself over with a truck; another briefly poisoned the water supply with a sheep carcass—drenched in his own urine—while attempting to make leather the Neanderthal way; and there has been one accidental death. Still, 100 years after its founding, the experiment is going strong, with such notable alumni as novelist William T. Vollmann; James Withrow, a leader of the World War II–era precursor agency to the CIA; Chris Nicholson, CEO of Skymind, an artificial intelligence company in San Francisco; and Norton Dodge, an expert on Soviet economics, who, through smuggling, single-handedly saved underground Russian art from total oblivion during the Cold War. There are also two MacArthur “genius” grant recipients, a congressman, and a guy who attempted to be a real-life masked vigilante in Roanoke, Virginia. This from a collective group of alumni that is, in total, smaller than a single class of freshmen at Harvard.
All these illustrious graduates are men, because for its first 100 years Deep Springs did not admit women. But after a long battle among the alumni, in 2018 Deep Springs will accept female students for the first time, bringing the total of male-only colleges in the United States down to three. The community is fairly unperturbed about the coming change. “It’s true; having female students will be weird,” says Byron Estep, ’86, who went on to Yale, where he forced coeducation on his secret society, Skull and Bones. “But Deep Springs is always weird. Having women on board won’t make it any more intense.”
Consider its eccentric history. The school’s founder, Lucius Lucien Nunn, had a brother named Lucien Lucius. Lucius Lucien grew up to become the Sergey Brin of the early 20th century, a colleague of legendary inventors Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse who engineered a way to move the latest technological wonder—electricity—over long distances and made a fortune supplying power to the silver mines of Colorado. Nunn’s electrical system required a series of manned substations. To run them, he had to train young men to be alone in the wilderness and responsible for the day’s most high-tech gadgets. As with Bill Gates in our century, Nunn’s focus turned from business to education. His aims were much like those of his contemporary Cecil Rhodes, who gave the world Rhodes Scholars. Nunn wanted to turn students of superior talent into an elite band of leaders. He envisioned a school providing “a short season of preparation for the work of the few, the great work—the heavy toil of leadership.” And by leaders, of course, he meant men.
In 1912, Nunn had founded a program at Cornell University, but he was dismayed to discover that his students became distracted by “the bright lights of Ithaca.” He sought something more intense and cloistered than the Ivy League. In 1917, he purchased the Swinging T ranch, two ridges over from Death Valley, where his students would be totally isolated, and called it Deep Springs College. Nunn was the kind of ambitious tech visionary who genuinely believed he could do something lofty. His formal mission statement for Deep Springs was “the education of promising young men, for unselfish service in uplifting mankind from materialism to idealism, to a life in harmony with the Creator.”
He limited each class to 14, and to ensure that all “promising young men” could attend, he made the college free. Nunn wanted his students self-reliant and self-governing, so he gave them genuine authority to run the college and its cattle ranch. He knew that putting the students in charge of their community’s food and upkeep would teach responsibility the hard way. I remember one winter morning failing in my job to make a fire big enough to warm the dining room. Thirty years later, I can close my eyes and see the glares and glowers of my very cold teachers and classmates at breakfast.
Above all, Nunn wanted his students isolated, a small band of boys in the desert fending for themselves. He forbade students from leaving the college during term and exhorted them to listen for “the voice of the desert.” “Great leaders in all ages from Moses to Roosevelt have sought the desert,” Nunn wrote. “Gentlemen, ‘for what came ye into the wilderness?’ Not for conventional scholastic training, not for ranch life, not to become proficient in professional pursuits for personal gain. You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you.”
Wandering around the desert listening for voices can give you some strange ideas. For the past two decades, Nunn’s creation has been ranked among the nation’s most selective colleges by average SAT score, but when I was there in the mid-eighties, Deep Springs was not among the most selective colleges in the country. In fact, our goal as the Admissions Committee was to make Deep Springs the least selective college in the country. We wanted Deep Springs to have a higher, more just process than the college rat race we had faced in high school. So our policy was that Deep Springs should be “self-selecting.” To that end, we made the application onerous, demanding 12 essays from high school seniors even to be considered. And we kept the college’s public profile low by turning down press requests. We wanted students to stumble upon the college on their own. The goal was that we would receive only 12 completed applications—but in some mystical way they would be the right 12.
Nowadays the application process is more rational, but the monastic feel of Deep Springs is built-in. Bells ring to summon the community to meals. Students, faculty and staff all eat together. With work on the farm, classes and self-government, most of a student’s waking minutes are filled by the program. The vast emptiness of the desert does make you think about your place in the universe—especially if you are 19. And perhaps most monastic of all for the all-male student body was the absolute lack of any potential female romantic partners for at least an hour’s drive in any direction.
For its first six or seven decades, the idea of coeducation at Deep Springs didn’t get much attention. After all, when Deep Springs was founded, most private colleges were segregated by gender. But by the 1970s, the Student Body was voting in favor of admitting women every year. It was unjust, the argument ran, to prohibit females from Nunn’s transformative experience. But the mission statement reads “for promising young men,” and changing the trust could only be done by Trustees, a group that included two students but was otherwise dominated by alumni.
In the ’80s, most of the older alumni were aghast at the idea of women “in the valley.” Their main argument was that introducing sexual tension would make Deep Springs, already a tough place, tougher. Imagine, they would say, having to live and work in close quarters for months on end with the girl who dumped you. Coed proponents pointed out there was already that kind of sexual tension at Deep Springs. Over the years, the college has had an alarming rate of affairs between female teachers and students. And starting in the late ’80s, openly gay men began to attend and thrive at Deep Springs. The sky did not fall when hearts got broken. Thanks to gay students, the old argument against coeducation at Deep Springs—that the sexual tension would be too much—slowly broke down. Nonetheless, the argument went on for three more decades.
When I was there, the wife of one professor refused to interact with the community because it was single-sex. She stayed in her room the whole time she was there, in protest. As an experiment, in 1990, several female high school students were invited to Deep Springs for the summer term. A love quadrangle formed around one young woman, causing ill will, and the forces against coeducation deemed the experiment a failure. (That young woman is today the dean of a law school.) In an attempt to end the debate, one wealthy alum left the perennially broke college a large bequest—as long it remained single-sex.
In the mid-’90s, the Trustees finally agreed to vote on the coed issue. The outcome was a 4-4 tie, with one trustee abstaining. The arguments had been so intense that, in the interest of comity, the board agreed not to talk about the coed question again for several years, until a multiyear capital campaign was successfully completed. By the aughts, the older generation was dying off and younger alumni were joining the board, many of whom had been in favor of coeducation while students. As board chairman, David Hitz, a successful software engineer, led a formal study of the coed question involving students, faculty and outside experts. The study concluded that Deep Springs should go coed—not because single-sex was unfair to women, but because single-sex was unfair to Deep Springs. No one designing a leadership training course today would make it male-only, Hitz argued. In Nunn’s world of 1917, single-sex was the norm. In today’s world, you can’t not have women at the table if you want to train leaders. Keeping Deep Springs single-sex, Hitz maintained, was compromising Nunn’s primary mission.
In 2011, the Hitz-led board voted in favor of coeducation, 9-2. But two dissenters, Kinch Hoekstra and Edward Keonijan, felt strongly that the single-sex, ascetic nature of the college was one of the key ingredients to its success, and that ending it would rob the institution of something that made it great—in direct defiance of Nunn’s wishes. They began legal proceedings against the rest of the board, and for six years the two sides battled. But last year a judge in Inyo County finally ruled in favor of Hitz. In July 2018, the college will admit the first coeducational class in its history. At this writing, the Student Body is selecting its future classmates.
Deep Springs has been deluged by journalists and filmmakers who want to cover this upcoming change, but the students have decided to go coed without any press present. David Neidorf, the president of Deep Springs, asked me, as a documentary filmmaker, how to get filmmakers to stop pestering him and take no for an answer.
No one can say what will happen when women arrive “in the valley,” and no media will be there to report on it. But I have a prediction. Studies show that women at 18 generally tend to be more mature and better at working in groups than their male counterparts. Furthermore, the kind of young women who will apply to shovel horse shit in the freezing cold and blazing heat of Deep Springs are likely to be particularly tough and driven compared to their peers. I believe that the incoming female students will dominate the boys in self-government, the labor program and academics for years to come. Just as Deep Springs had a hundred years of men in the top student positions, I think we’re about to have a hundred years of women holding them. I, for one, welcome our new female overlords. I think Lucius Lucien would too.