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A century-old women’s college called on Virginia Worden when it needed to make a mission-altering change.
Student rebellion was in full swing when Virginia Hill Worden ’75 entered Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (R-MWC), in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the late 1960s. Worden fit right in; she marched in anti-Vietnam-War protests and led a successful revolt against the school’s dress code banning slacks. So she was not unprepared for the mayhem that erupted last September, when as interim president she announced that the 115-year-old single-sex school would open its doors to men in September 2007.
Some students burst into tears. Others chanted, “Keep R-MWC a WC.” Over the next week, hundreds of protesters marched with signs and yellow T-shirts that read, “Better Dead Than Co-Ed.” The students registered as a campus organization, which entitled them to a Web site, a faculty adviser and use of the college facilities. They held a ’60s-style sleep-out on the front campus lawn that eventually moved to Worden’s front yard. At 6:00 the second morning, the protesters started singing the R-MWC alma mater. “It’s my karma to have students camped out on the lawn to protest this change,” says Worden, who threw on jeans and a sweatshirt “and joined them, arm-in-arm, singing the college song.” She says, “They let me in. I protested myself.”
Nine students filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed in January. But most of the students cooled down after Worden let them pore over the school’s financial statements. Over four decades, enrollment had declined steadily from 900 students to 700. As a result, the school had been dipping into its endowment to woo students with financial incentives. Had R-MWC stayed all women it would have folded within 12 years, Worden estimates. “The decision wasn’t made on a philosophical basis. It was a question of survival,” she says.
Raised in Columbia, South Carolina, Worden recalls accepting the lesser roles designated for girls, such as class secretary instead of president, and cheerleader instead of athlete. Both parents—Albert, who worked for a paper company, and Virginia, who quit teaching to raise Worden and her sister—were college graduates and expected their daughters to further their education. Worden was drawn to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College because of its liberalism. The college was also small enough to encourage participation and leadership in campus activities. “At a time when males were given more value than females, to have a faculty of males and females devoted entirely to women…was extraordinarily empowering,” she says. She quickly involved herself in student government, ultimately becoming vice president in her senior year. Inspired by her economics courses—a subject taken by few women in those days at most coed schools—she ended up running the school cafeteria, and upon graduating in 1969 went on to earn her master’s degree in economics at Vanderbilt.
Then her life took a detour. Her fiancé was killed in Vietnam. “I’d gone through a life trauma and needed something that wasn’t that complicated to do, to work through the grief process,” she recalls. For the next two years, Worden traveled the globe as an airline hostess for Pan American World Airways, once again joining a sisterhood of sorts. “They were terrific, adventurous women,” she says of her fellow stewardesses. During this time, she met her brother’s friend Geoffrey Worden, whom she married in 1974.
Driven by a passion for debating, Worden entered Boston College School of Law, then transferred to NYU: “I loved it. Having a degree from NYU is a wonderfully affirming credential for anything you want to do in life”—which is considerable.
She became a litigator at Davis, Polk & Wardwell, juggling a full-time career with family commitments. Only after her third maternity leave did she quit to raise her children—two of whom, Katherine Worden ’06 and Annette Worden ’07, have also obtained law degrees from NYU. Worden threw herself into volunteering, becoming the president of the board at her daughters’ private school in Summit, New Jersey, and also at R-MWC.
In the 1980s, with their children growing up, she and Geoff had dual midlife crises. Instead of buying a Corvette, however, they studied at the Union Theological Seminary, then became ordained interfaith ministers. In 1988 they founded Bridges Outreach, which distributes bagged meals, clothing and toiletries to the homeless in New York City and throughout New Jersey.
As Bridges demonstrates, Worden embodies a mix of empathy and proactivity that has served her, and others, well. During R-MWC’s tough transition, Worden traveled the country talking to groups that were often hostile. “One of the things that is most impressive to me is her ability to have people challenge her, sometimes in not very kind ways,” says husband Geoff, an independent investment banker. “She listens to what they have to say, feels and empathizes with the hurt or anger. She’s like a tree—absorbing CO2 and exuding oxygen.”
By the time Worden’s one-year term as interim president ended on July 1, she was sure that the decision to go co-ed was the right one. The school—now called Randolph College—more than doubled its applications: 1,859 for the Class of 2011, compared to 902 the previous year. One quarter of the applicants were men.
All of 2007 Alumni Almanac