2007 Convocation

Convocation Address
September 3, 2007
Olin Fine Arts Center

It is a real pleasure to welcome you all here today to open the 226th academic year for Washington & Jefferson College. As you can tell, we have made many changes to this event.  When we instituted Convocation in 2005, we adopted the same format used at other colleges and universities-faculty in robes, an outside speaker, the presentation of an honorary degree.  But the more we thought about it, it seemed that Convocation should be like a family reunion, a time when we gather after a summer apart and have a 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. Outside speakers seemed like a distraction.  After all, who invites the neighbors to a family reunion?  So, we've redesigned Convocation to focus on the W&J community-its history and its achievements.

Today, to mark the opening of the school year, we will sing together, tell stories, and, finally, share a picnic supper with good food, games for old and young alike, 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 re-design Convocation this year.  Jim Sloat led this effort over the summer, calling on the talents of Katie Golding, Dan and Arlene Shaw, Dan Faulk, Billie Eaves, Kyle Simpson, Susan Yuhasz, Susan Woodard, Susan Medley, Bob Reid, Mark Swift, Pam Norris, Beckie Keenan, Jim Miller, Jan Czechowski, Dana Shiller, our singers, our cheerleaders, and everyone who contributed to the Convocation Video.  From the community at large, we thank Deborah Gates, 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 just gives us an opportunity to take notice of it.

Unfortunately, I must also note that we have had a death in the W&J family this summer and before we continue, I would like to observe a moment of silence for Trapper Flenke, a rising junior at W&J, a double major in psychology and philosophy with a minor in theology, who was tragically killed in a car accident on August 19.  Trapper exemplified the best at W&J-an outstanding scholar, an accomplished athlete, and a warm friend.  Please join me in a moment of silence in his memory.

Thank you all so much.

Now, some of you may be wondering why we started with "This Land is Your Land"-especially with its local lyrics.  When I first arrived, I was warned by a faculty member, "Whatever you do, be sure that you keep "America the Beautiful" in our ceremonies.  It's a tradition and I love singing that song with my colleagues each year at graduation."  And so we kept it-but singing it at BOTH Matriculation and Convocation, ceremonies that are 3 days apart, was too repetitive.  I heard grumbling.  And so, we have kept "America the Beautiful" at Matriculation and Commencement, the two events that define the academic year and bookend a student's experience at W&J, but we needed a change for Convocation.  This year, working with a group of people, we selected "This Land" and, in the tradition of college song-making, Dan and Arlene Shaw worked up some new lyrics.  I thought the particular song choice was appropriate since this Convocation focuses on the entrance of women into W&J, an event that occurred in 1970, a time when Woodie Guthrie's song was popular.  Next year, we may sing this song again, OR we may ask the Greek organizations to dust off their particular W&J songs.  I am told that each fraternity and sorority has a serious and a silly W&J song.  My bet is that they are still in your archives, and I hope to hear you singing them by next year at this time.  You are forewarned-you have one year to prepare . . . .

Another change this year is the absence of a formal faculty procession, complete with heavy (and hot) regalia.  Again, the family reunion theme-we wanted to be a bit more informal.  On the other hand, because the ceremony also nods to tradition, the platform party is in robes, just as they are at Baccalaureate and on other ceremonial occasions.

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.  Today you will hear a brief overview of the history and then I'll pull together some stories from 1970-the year that W&J admitted its first class of women.

So, let's begin at the beginning.

Washington and Jefferson Colleges were founded by two Presbyterian ministers, both Princeton men, who set out from Philadelphia for an unknown land to start two schools: Jefferson Academy in Canonsburg 17 miles from here and Washington Academy on whose site we now stand.  Imagine what the lives of those early students 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 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, to master the art of writing.

By the time of the civil war, however, there were not enough young men to keep both colleges financially solvent, and the two decided to join.  But this was not a comfortable marriage. Most of the boys of Washington were Northern sympathizers and most of those from Jefferson fought for the Confederacy.  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 Spanish-American War, WWII and the Korean War.  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, when in 1945 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.  It wasn't long, however, until the Viet Nam conflict once again drew young men away from college and enrollment here dropped to about 800 students in the 1960's. 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, was founded in 1836 and continued until 1948.  The Seminary (you know it as "The Sem" in the song "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 the occasional woman as a part-time or special student, usually a faculty wife.

So, the question of whether or not to admit women as full-time students was significant for a school that had focused on educating 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, prominent research publications supported this change by arguing that men would work harder when they had to compete with women in the classroom and, of course, increasing the applicant pool allowed admissions to be more selective.  At the very least, one publication asserted, "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 enrolling women.  Just a few months later, in December, the Board debated the issue.  The Ad Hoc committee made no formal recommendation but reported that students would welcome the diversity that women's points of view would add to the class discussions and voiced the hope that W&J would hire some female professors as well.  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 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.  The decision had been reached in less than four months.  Four Trustees requested 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 desperately 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 purity 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 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 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 one English professor, 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.  But after reading her well-researched and lengthy paper, he conceded that it was the best in the class. I have no record of how faculty meetings must have changed, but I am sure that the addition of the college's first women faculty-one each in Sociology, Phys Ed, French and Spanish-must have required an adjustment.

Meanwhile, the faculty wives tried to support female students as well as they could, providing them with what they saw as "life skills."  The president's wife held a formal tea for the girls and the wife of Chemistry Professor, Dr. Funderburk, 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 good 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 firsthand.

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 made by the Chatham women, not the W&J men.  Several alumni from that era have called it a "non-event." In fact, the upperclass men told me that the addition of Intersession to the academic calendar was a much bigger adjustment. In his inaugural address only 8 months after women were admitted, the new president, Howard Burnett, 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 adjusted, 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 faculty, staff, and students 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.

This year's Convocation Banner reminds us of changes that took place 37 years ago, changes that have brought new faces and new experiences to W&J. Presenting this year's banner are

Marissa Cocciolone '09 representing Delta Gamma
Megan DuBois '09 representing Delta Omicron Music Honorary Society
Erin Faulk '08 representing the Red and Black
Jonathon Hairston '09 representing Phi Delta Theta
Craig Rumbaugh '10 a J-Walker
Justin Swank '09 representing SAB
Amanda Nicastro '09 representing the Newman Club, and
Matt Rudzki '08 from the cross country team and SGA.

Thank you all.

And now, a long-standing W&J tradition, one that was lost in the 60's when so many college traditions were abandoned nationwide-"Good Ole W&J."  I'd like to sing the song in choral format.  Let's have faculty and staff do the first verse, everyone do the chorus, students do the second verse, and everyone finish with the chorus.  Our leaders will help us through.

In place of an outside speaker, we have a college video-prepared by Bob Reid and edited by Mark Swift. All summer people dropped by McMillan to tell Bob Reid what they had done over the summer.  Others sent photos and left messages talking about their adventures.  Once again, imagine yourself at a family reunion, checking in with one another and asking, "So, who are you?  And how did you spend your summer vacation?" Think of this as a family video.

Congratulations to Bob and Mark, and thank you to everyone who made the video possible.

Finally, I ask the cheerleaders to join us as we close today's ceremony with the Alma Mater. As is traditional, we will sing only the first two verses, each followed by a chorus, after which it is traditional to shout the "Whichi Coax" cheer, so don't forget to add it at the end.  In this way, the ceremony will begin and end with Whichi Coax, our college version of a secret handshake among friends.

Thank you so much.  The ghosts that haunt these halls must be applauding.  I now declare the 226th year of W&J College open.