Deep Springs was founded in 1917 by electricity tycoon and philanthropist L.L. Nunn. After building power plants across North America, he devoted his wealth and influence to developing new forms of education. His two surviving educational projects, Deep Springs College and the Telluride Association, are both imbued with his distinctive philosophy of education.
Nunn’s career began in Telluride, Colorado, a small mining town where he operated a diverse set of businesses including several gold mines. Upon realizing the importance of electricity for mining, he used his assets to start what would become the Telluride Power Company. The venture built and acquired power plants across the western United States and in Canada and Mexico, and also devised ways for electricity to be transferred over great distances.
To staff his company, Nunn devised a unique in-house education system. Bright and hardworking young men were recruited to receive extensive training for free so that they could take leadership roles at the plants. Each student would begin by taking coursework in addition to their daily jobs. Then, successful students were given scholarships to continue their educations at elite universities.
Education soon eclipsed business as Nunn’s primary concern. In 1909, he established the first Telluride House to provide room and board for his pupils earning degrees at Cornell University. The Telluride Association was formally constituted to administer the house. Nunn had discovered in the American west, where small towns were largely autonomous, that self-governance could foster individual virtues. Thus, he incorporated the idea of self-governance into the Telluride Association. Both the Telluride Association and the house at Cornell continue to operate today. The association has since expanded to include another Telluride House at University of Michigan, as well as two summer programs for high school students.
His final project was to found an independent college that would prepare students for a “life of service to humanity” through a three-part program of liberal arts, student self-governance, and labor. After considering a number of possible locations, Nunn purchased a cattle ranch in eastern California that would become the campus of Deep Springs College. The college admitted its first class of twenty in 1917.
Since Nunn’s death in 1925, the college has evolved while maintaining many tenets of his original vision. Alumni have gone on to become leaders in a number of fields, some receiving MacArthur Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, and Truman and Rhodes Scholarships. Today, Deep Springs is often cited as an example of the transformative experience that higher education can offer.
The possibility of coeducation has been debated by the Deep Springs community since the 1960’s. The Deep Springs Board of Trustees voted in 2011 to begin admitting women. Though this decision was widely supported by students, staff, faculty, and alumni of the college, a legal challenge was brought by two dissenting trustees. The litigation is currently ongoing. For more information, please visit our coeducation webpage.