September 5, 2011
We have three all-campus ceremonies at the College, Matriculation and Commencement, marking important transitions in the lives of our students, and this ceremony, Convocation, which is our family reunion. After a summer apart from one another, this is our chance to see eccentric Uncle Cyrus again, exclaim over Cousin Hannah’s new baby, or marvel at the way we all have grown. It is like a family dinner--a time to catch up with one another, to think about the community we create here, the shared history and values that make us a family.
Today, to mark the opening of the 231st school year, we will sing together, tell stories, and, finally, share a picnic supper with good food, balloon art, and perhaps even a game of volleyball or ultimate frisbee. At the picnic, we hope you will have an opportunity to reconnect with your colleagues, your students, your professors, and your friends. Thank you all for participating and for the hard work you devote to making W&J the special place it is.
And let me specifically thank all of those who helped to coordinate Convocation this year. Jim Sloat led this effort, calling on the talents of Troy Bonte, Kate Clark, Dan Shaw, Billie Eaves, Kyle Simpson, Aaron Weaver and Keri Bailey from Parkhurst, Byron McCrae, Jay White, Al Newell, Susan Medley, Bob Reid, Pam Norris, Karen Oosterhous, Maureen Valentine, our singers, our cheerleaders, our bell ringers, our banner bearers, our jazz combo, Protection Services, and everyone who contributed to the Convocation Video. We also thank Michelle Balfee, our sign language interpreter. Of course, this kind of collaboration happens every day at W&J. That’s the kind of place W&J is—a place where everyone is willing to work together, shoulder to the wheel. Convocation gives us an opportunity to take notice of this spirit of community that we all treasure.
Thank you all so much.
And speaking of community, I would like to mark a few comings and goings. Most notably, one of our most beloved professors will be retiring at the end of this academic year: Dr. Stanley Myers. I am announcing this now so that we can all take the time we need to celebrate his long career with the College and tell him how much he has meant to W&J. Dr. Myers came to the College in the fall of 1971 and for 40 years has been a revered member of our Psychology Department. He is one of those faculty who is a regular participant in our Admissions events, introducing prospective students and their families to W&J. And he has also offered one of the most popular Intersession courses in which students can travel to Africa to watch the impressive animal migrations there. Please join me in thanking Dr. Myers for his years of service.
We also have a very special announcement of a new endowed professorship at W&J. Endowing a professorship helps ensure on-going funding for a key faculty member and provides programming and research support for that individual. It is an expression of respect for the high quality of education provided by W&J. As part of the Science Initiative, Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield generously provided the funding for an endowed professorship in Health Sciences, to recognize outstanding work by a faculty member active in the College’s science and pre-health programs who is both dedicated to teaching and has an active program of research. I am delighted to announce that the new Highmark Professor in Health Sciences is Dr. Ronald Bayline from our Biology Department.
As at any family reunion, it is appropriate that we tell stories from our family’s past. The history of a college reveals its values and reminds us of the people who have shaped the institution. Our history and our stories tell us who we are. They bear repeating. So, at Convocation, it has become traditional to recount the College’s history, focusing each year on a different major event in that story. Two years ago we focused on the Civil War and the union of the two colleges, and last year we talked about the college’s struggles during World War II. This year, I will focus on 1970—the year that W&J admitted its first class of women.
But, for the sake of context, let’s begin at the beginning.
Washington & Jefferson College began as three small log cabin schools founded in the early 1780’s. These three schools were headed by three Presbyterian ministers, all graduates of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton. The three men came out west separately, but once here, worked together to ensure that young men were prepared to become the teachers and preachers needed to sustain European settlements in this area and establish new communities as the frontier moved farther westward.
Those first students met in cramped and drafty log cabins. It’s hard to imagine what their lives must have been like, six of them to a small room that served as both sleeping quarters and classroom. Indian attacks, the threat of starvation if with the local crops failed, no running water, no electric lights, and one copy of a book for the entire school. Despite these challenges, those early students left their families and came together to study the Greeks, to learn mathematics, to think about the lessons of history, and to master the art of writing.
After about seven years, the log cabins schools became too small, and soon they were transformed into two colleges, Washington College, on whose campus we now convene and Jefferson College, in Canonsburg about 10 miles away. The two colleges were bitter rivals and engaged in what were called the “College Wars” for almost a century. Many times, when the two institutions were struggling to make ends meet, they considered joining together to create one, united College. But, again and again, the rivalry between the two schools prevented their union.
When the Civil War heated up, however, the young men from this region marched off in large numbers to defend their ideals, some going North and others going South, for Washington County was truly split in its sentiments. Although Jefferson College was the more northern of the two schools, the students and faculty there generally sympathized with the South, while the more cosmopolitan Washington College, connected to the East Coast through the National Road, now Maiden Street, sent a higher proportion of its men to the Northern cause.
Soon there were not enough young men to keep both colleges financially solvent, and the two were forced to join or perish. But this was not a comfortable marriage. The merger of the two schools occurred on March 4, 1865, Lincoln’s second inaugural, when the country was still deeply divided. In this environment, students of the newly united college returned to share residence halls and classrooms with those they had previously tried to kill during the bloody battles of the Civil War. There were sword duels on campus—no one was killed, but blood was shed. Gradually, however, the College healed and a new community was born, a community where you can be sure that there were lively debates, bitter arguments, and searching discussions, but gradually there was also respect.
Reinfused with new energy by the union of the two Colleges, W&J went on to weather WWI (“the war to end all wars”), the depression, and WWII. Enrollment fluctuated, as the country’s men were called to service or released to private lives. The size of the student body hit a low point during World War II, in 1945 when only 143 men attended the College. But the end of hostilities and the passage of the GI Bill allowed the College to bounce back to its normal size of about 1100 students once again in the 1950’s. The mid-1960’s saw more enrollment challenges and in response, W&J considered a truly drastic step—adding women.
Of course, there had been female students associated with W&J for some time. The Washington Female Seminary, located near Davis Hall, was founded in 1836 and continued until 1948. The Seminary (you know it as “The Sem” in “Good Ole W&J”) had a reputation in its day for being different from most female seminaries. Rather than being a finishing school, it provided a rigorous academic curriculum, often calling upon W&J faculty as teachers for its advanced courses. After the Seminary’s closure, W&J continued to have occasional women as part-time or special students, most of whom were faculty wives.
So, the question of whether or not to admit women as full-time students was significant for a school that had educated only men for close to 200 years. On the other hand, many all-male schools were making the change at this time. Princeton, Yale, Kenyon, and Franklin and Marshall all went coed in 1969, followed by Williams College and W&J in 1970. At that time, many research publications argued that men would work harder when they had women to compete with and, of course, increasing the applicant pool allowed admissions to be more selective. At the very least, one publication asserted with some surprise, “Women are capable of learning anything men can learn.”
The question of whether or not to admit women had come up periodically within the Board of Trustees, so when it became a serious possibility, the decision was reached with uncharacteristic quickness. In August 1969, President Boyd Patterson appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to study the question of whether or not the school should admit women. Just a few months later, in December, the Board debated the issue. Only one of the 40 full-time faculty said he would not have chosen work here if the school was coeducational. But the Trustees were more conflicted. What would this do to the moral fiber of the college, they wondered. Could they find jobs for their women graduates? Would the men study more or be distracted? What changes would need to be made? Hair washing seems to have been a major concern and it was noted that women would need special areas for washing hair in the dormitory and a special room in the new Henry Gymnasium was set aside to allow for hair drying.
Finally, the Board took a vote, first by voice and then by paper ballot since the voice results were too close to call. The final result was 13 in favor of admitting women and 7 opposed. Four Trustees requested specifically that their names be recorded as opposing this ill-guided decision.
So, in September 1970, W&J welcomed 77 women as freshmen and 30 women transfers who were sophomores or juniors. TV cameras were there to cover the historic event. No one knew what to expect from what one man called “these foreign creatures.” Some members of the first class of women were daughters or younger sisters of alumni. A few others knew about the school because they lived in the area. One woman told me that she had passed by the school for her whole life and wanted to go there. Then, like a miracle, the decision to admit women coincided with her senior year in high school. But many of these young women had not seen the W&J campus before they arrived, and when they got out of their cars in front the women’s dorm (now Alexander), they were greeted by banners that read “Coeds go Home!” Little wonder that these women forged deep bonds of friendship.
The only thing more astonishing than the speed with which the decision to admit women was made is how little was changed in anticipation of their arrival. As one woman in that first class put it, “They gave us a dean and dorm and that was it.” No sports, no sororities, no changes in the curriculum. However, the women did have different dormitory rules than men, after all, their fragile morality had to be protected. If they left the campus after 7 p.m., they had to sign out and state their destination. When they returned, they had to sign in. Freshman women were permitted to be absent from the dorm overnight only with written permission from their parents. Men had no such restrictions. Needless to say, these rules were not popular, and they were repealed after one year.
Homecoming was a very confusing time. For years, the men had elected a Homecoming Queen from among their dates (usually students from Chatham College in Pittsburgh), and they continued to do so despite the protests of the female W&J students. It would be three years until a W&J woman became Homecoming Queen. The most outspoken of the upperclass women was Erma Evans, who made quite a name for herself by writing about women’s liberation in the Red and Black. By Homecoming, she had become an outspoken critic of the Jay men, calling them “childish” as they huddled with their off-campus dates at the fraternity parties and ignored the W&J coeds. One senior male responded to Erma, saying, “Coeds have some truly unrealistic expectations. They expect to be wined, dined, asked out, sought after, chased, if you will. . . . Coeds were not dated [at Homecoming] because no one wanted to date them.” The campus quickly divided into Pro-Erma and anti-Erma factions. Soon after Homecoming, a group of Anti-Erma men surrounded the girl’s residence hall, shouting “Get Erma! Get Erma!” and wanted to storm the place but were held off by the small, gray-haired housemother who stood in the front door and blocked their way. Apparently they intended to pull off a panty raid, but, quite frankly, didn’t know how to do it. A few weeks later, however, the women taught the men a lesson. They raided the ATO house in a “reverse panty raid”, made off with 500 pairs of the men’s underwear and then dyed it all pink before returning it.
And what did the women students do on a normal day? Well, it varied, but most simply studied. With most of the men still involved with relationships with what were referred to as “Chatham Chicks,” the girls formed close friendships. Apparently bridge was a popular pastime with one group while another used to gather in the dorm hallway at night, reading the feminist classic Fear of Flying to one another. As for the men, they had a bigger adjustment. As one of them said, “We didn’t know how to deal with women for more than a weekend—we could only look good for 3 days at a stretch.”
For their part, the faculty adjusted as best they could. While some welcomed the women, especially as their grades began to rise above those of their male classmates, others made sexist jokes. When English professor Peter Skutches, known for his frequent profanity, swore in class, causing a girl in the front row to gasp, he leaned over her, repeating the four-letter f-word over and over again right into her face, then stood up and said, “Good. Now you’re used to it.” Another professor discouraged a female student from writing on the women’s role in the Civil War because, he said, they had no role. She would not be able to find any materials for her paper. But after reading her well-researched and lengthy paper, he conceded that it was the best in the class.
Meanwhile, the faculty wives tried to support the women as well as they could. The president’s wife held a formal tea for the girls and the wife of Chemistry Professor, Dr. Funderburg, offered the women cooking lessons and took all them on a field trip down to the local grocery store to teach them how to buy fresh green beans and cantaloupe.
Probably the group who had the hardest time adjusting to the new faces at W&J was the alumni. Their college was no longer the same—and undoubtedly the change was greater in their imaginations than it was in reality. One alum refused to get out of the car when he delivered his daughter here for her admissions tour. Apparently he wanted his daughter to have the same fine education he had had, but he did not want to see the changes.
Despite the reverse panty raid and occasional profanity, the entrance of women was relatively uneventful, a testament to tolerance of diversity on this campus. Remember that “Coeds Go Home” sign? Many suspected that it was actually made by the Chatham women, not the W&J men. Several alumni from that era have called the admission of women a “non-event.” In fact, the upperclass men told me that the adoption of the 4-1-4 calendar was a bigger adjustment. In his inaugural address only 8 months after women were admitted, the new president, Howard Burnet, made no reference whatsoever to coeducation, and a mid-year report reassured alumni that “any anxiety that might have existed prior to the move rapidly disappeared.” The campus just slowly adapted, adding the first women’s sports team, field hockey, in 1973, and the first varsity teams, basketball and volleyball one year later. Alumni from the period said, “We were not interested in protesting—we just wanted to study.”
This period in the college’s history speaks to our strengths: diversity and initiative. Together the men and women of the 1970’s rebuilt W&J into a place where men and women can learn and live side by side. The story of how W&J became coed is yet one more testament to our motto: Juncta Juvant: Together we Thrive.