Desert Educator

  • Education
  • 1917

There are few institutions that generate more affection in the hearts of donors than excellent small colleges. And no college in America is smaller, nor really more excellent, than Deep Springs, an idiosyncratic place nestled a mile above sea level in the California mountains. At any one time, Deep Springs is home to two dozen of the smartest young men in America, who are attracted by its offer of two years of intense academic study, hard ranch work for 20 hours per week, and practical lessons in communal cooperation—all 100 percent free. Its graduates usually go on to complete their degrees at top universities, and more than half of all attendees have ended up with doctoral degrees.

All this is precisely as Lucien Nunn intended. Nunn pioneered long-distance transmission of alternating electrical current, then made his fortune building power plants for mines across the American west. As he expanded his operations, he felt a keen need for hardworking, skilled men of independence and integrity. In response, Nunn purchased Deep Springs Ranch and set up a school there that melds esoteric book learning, outdoor labor, self-governance, and a dose of desert spirituality.

Nunn’s vision is now being argued over, however. Deep Springs is one of only four remaining men’s liberal-arts colleges in the country, and a majority of the trustees recently voted to go co-ed. Dissenting trustees remain convinced that Nunn’s donor intent was for Deep Springs to remain all-male and that their job as trustees is to protect that intent. “Neither trustees nor courts have the authority to change or ignore a trust provision simply because they think it isn’t optimal or preferable, even if the preference is based on their passionate moral beliefs,” trustee Kinch Hoekstra told the Atlantic. “The great thing about the legal protection of charitable trusts over time is that we don’t all have a bunch of institutions in 2013 that are wholly determined by what trustees happen to think in 2013. That would lead to an appalling homogenization of our cultural, social, and educational landscape. Instead, people set up different projects in 1880, or 1938, or 1972, and those visions, sometimes gloriously out of step with how we currently think and sometimes maddeningly so, may continue to thrive.”

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