Desert Educator

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 high desert bordered by the White and Inyo mountain ranges. At any one time, Deep Springs is home to two dozen of the most academically qualified 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 self-governance—all 100 percent free. Its graduates usually go on to complete their degrees at America’s most prestigious 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 hard-working, skilled men of independence and integrity. In response, as one part of his philanthropic plans, Nunn purchased Deep Springs Ranch and set up a school there that melds esoteric book learning, practical work, self-governance, and a dose of desert spirituality. (“The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice; and God speaks through its personality and voice. Great leaders in all ages…have sought the desert and heard its voice,” wrote Nunn. “But you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things.”)

Today, however, Nunn’s vision is being questioned. Deep Springs is one of only four remaining men’s liberal-arts colleges in the country, and the trustees recently decided to go co-ed. Arguments are flying back and forth: On the one hand, Nunn invested the Deep Springs student body as “true owners” of the college and its properties, and the student body supports co-education. On the other, in legal documents Nunn expressly stated that Deep Springs was “for the education of…promising young men.”

Dissenting trustees challenged the vote to accept female students starting in the fall of 2013, and an injunction has so far prevented Deep Springs from going co-ed.

While the parties continue to sort it out in court, the 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,” argues Hoekstra, “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.”

This article originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine.