Mary Bunting: The Porch Light Was On
THERE is a story about Mary Bunting that goes something like this: one day early in her term as president she was trying to convince several wealthy alumnae to contribute large sums to their alma mater when she received a phone call from her housekeeper. The bees from her son's apiary had somehow escaped and were flying around the house and the housekeeper was distraught. Bunting, thinking of first things first, said, "Just tell them to be good and I'll be home as soon as I can," and returned to the alumnae.
The accuracy of the story, recounted here about fourth-hand, is dubious, but it shows a lot of things about Radcliffe's fifth president, due to retire in 1972. She has always thought of Rad-cliffe first; she has an endearing, common-sense approach to affairs which inspires the confidence of many-you know that when she gets home, the president and lecturer on Biology will take care of it. And the way she handles an immediate crisis is often exasperating-pity the poor housekeeper.
Almost everyone in the Radcliffe Administration says Bunting (whom they all refer to as "Polly") is a woman of vigor, creativity, intelligence and vision. She lists her major accomplishments as the Radcliffe Institute (a place of more individualized education for older women) and the remodelling of the Radcliffe Quad (complete with Hilles, Currier and the House system). She is also Radcliffe's last president as the job now stands, since the "non-merger" proposal she worked out with Harvard has just been approved by both institutions' governing boards. During the next academic year, she will serve as Dean and President of Radcliffe, linking past and future administrations.
Bunting came to Cambridge in 1960 after four years as Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers. Within a few weeks of her inauguration she had proposed the Institute to Radcliffe's trustees and started working on ways to model the Quad's dorms after Harvard's house system.
"I find it hard to think of what Radcliffe was like in 1960," Mary Lothrop Bundy '46, a trustee for ten years, said last week. "There have been so many changes.... What Polly does is to make people think of what would be the most impossible and best thing they could do for Radcliffe and then get them to do it."
She said that her husband, McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of the Faculty, was one of the Harvard officials who spoke with Bunting before she was offered the presidency. "He saw her and they all said 'What did you think?' and he said, grab her,'" was Mrs. Bundy's account.
Most of Bunting's problems were during a two or three year period stretching from 1967 to '69 when her usually good communication with students broke down. The hunger strike in May 1967 for permission to live "off-off," a black students' sit-in in December 1968 demanding the admission of more blacks, and a chaotic, vituperative sit-in in her office during the events of April 1969 were the low points of her career here. "I found it difficult to talk to any students during that time. I remember feeling that if things didn't get better there was just no point in my staying any longer," she said last week. "But now I feel those things happen and we shouldn't forget them."
ALTHOUGH a consciousness of women's problems in society is relatively recent to most people, Bunting has long been aware of prejudices and searching for answers. "I never felt any problems in my own education or going into graduate and career work because I was a woman," she said. "But right after Sputnik I became aware there was a problem with women's education." She served on a National Science Foundation Committee on Scientific Education and Manpower-one of the many governmental commit ?? set up in the wake of the Russia, ?? cllite. A study that committee dia??nowed that 98 per cent of what they termed "bright" high school students who did not go to college were women. But the committee's final report mentioned nothing of this finding. "They suppressed it because they felt it would detract from the emphasis of getting more trained men. Nobody really expected women to use their education and minds for anything important," she said.
"I realized that there was a climate of unexpectation in the education of women. I started noticing how differently people talk to little girls and little boys about what they're going to be when they grow up." Bunting said that this climate was what led her to propose the Institute, "to show that we care what happens to women and their minds."
She blames this conditioning of women for much of their present situation in society. In her inaugural address in May 1960, Bunting spoke of not paying enough attention to women's education. "True, we all have theories but do we have valid findings? Or is it possible that we dodge this question too because its investigation demands decisions that we fear to face?
"No wonder that most of the highly talented youth in this country who fail to go to college are girls. No wonder that those who do go often drop out at the flick of the ring. They have never really been in. They have not aspired to scholarship or service. This is not the dream of democracy: this is Brave New World."
HER emphasis at Radcliffe in recent years has been one of trying to get the male administration and student body to change their attitudes towards women. She was instrumental in proposing merger two years ago because at that time it seemed the only way to achieve coresidential housing. "The most important thing in the housing change is the attitudes of men. Where they get to know girls, they learn and change," she said.
Some students have recently been calling for a closer to equal male-female ration than the present four-to-one. Bunting has seen this demand as secondary and possibly detrimental to the primary goal of merger. The strong Harvard opposition to an equal ratio was one of the major reasons for the not-complete-merger plan just approved: legally, the two institutions are still separate. If ever an equal rights amendment is added to the state or federal constitution, it would not apply to an equal admissions policy because these functions will be kept separate under the new contract.
Bunting has favored merger also for the financial benefits it will bring badly impoverished Radcliffe.
"It would be better if the ratio were closer, but I don't think it's as important as attitudes," which Bunting feels can be changed through closer communication within the present student body.
"I think there's a tendency at Radcliffe to blame Harvard for this awful ratio, and they are to blame," she continued. "But all these years we didn't do anything either-we didn't pressure them.
"What we have put emphasis on is preparing more women to take the positions they should have," Bunting said. She added that half of the women at the Radcliffe Institute are now administrators-a post which she understandably sees as a key one.
Although she has always emphasized women's careers, Bunting has also paid attention to the role of women as mothers and educators of future generations. She herself did not work from 1940 to 1946 while she spent time raising her four children on a farm outside of New Haven, where her husband, who died in 1954, then worked. Had she lived in a city during that time, she said, she would have held a part-time job, but instead she worked in the community. She added that working on a local school board provided her with much useful administrative experience.
SHE HAS maintained a very personal involvement in her work at Radcliffe. Although she modestly says of her work days only, "You have to stick to your job pretty much," those around her say she is an indefatigable worker. She rises at 6 a. m. to write letters-many a big businessman has been happily startled by her handwritten notes of thanks for large gifts to the College.
Because Radcliffe is a considerably smaller institution than Harvard, Bunting has been able to maintain close contacts with students and staff. She is aware of births and deaths in staff members' families, writing personal letters on such occasions. And many a groggy Radcliffe student has been startled to look up from a lukewarm bowl of oatmeal to find Bunting on one of her frequent visits to the dining halls. The Grand Design for the Quad was hers, and she kept up with it even down to choosing the curtain material for Mabel Daniels.
Bunting often projects the feeling of a warm, motherly woman, easy to talk to and understanding. She is almost always accessible to students. Before the completion of Hilles, when the Radcliffe library was in the Radcliffe Yard, across Brattle Street from her house, she would leave her porch light on at nights if she was in. The light was an open invitation to any studying students to drop in on her for coffee, donuts and talk.
She has also broken the taciturn image of so many administrators by taking political stands on national issues. In recent years, her name has appeared occasionally in papers as the signer of letters protesting the war in Indochina. "It's a rare request I say yes to, but when I feel I know the group that is writing and that it can do some good, I will sign a statement," she said.
She attributes her ease of communication to Radcliffe's composition: "I'm really like a dean here-I don't even have a faculty between me and the students," she said. But communication has not always been good. The hunger strike of May 1967 was un-loubtedly the bitterest period of her time at Radcliffe. Twenty-three students starved themselves for five days in protest of the policy that year to let only 36 seniors live off campus in their own apartments. Off-campus houses were in the process of being torn down of sold to make room for Currier, and seniors who normally spent their last year in a quiet frame house with 10 or 15 other students were being forced into living in largedormitories again. Bunting stated that no more students could live off-off because it cost the College $1000 every time a student moved off. This was during the fund-raising campaign for Currier, which many of the students resented. They felt they had not been asked whether they would prefer a fourth house or apartments. They asserted that the College should absorb the $1000/ person deficit rather than build Currier.
The CRIMSON of that spring referred to Bunting's "growing reputation as an autocrat," and ran editorials strongly denouncing her. One of them said, "There is evidence, in fact, to suggest that Mrs. Bunting has consistently disregarded widespread student opposition to her pet project... Mrs. Bunting's repeated refrain at Radcliffe Government Association meetings, that Radcliffe is run both by its students and administrators, has always been a deception. And always will be."
Much of the students' bitterness came from the rapidity with which many decisions about housing had been made that spring, with little or no consultation with students. Bunting felt at the time that the hunger strike was organized by juniors who had not received permission to live in apartments, for their own selfish motives. On the second day of the five-day protest (which ended with a negotiating committee being formed), she said, "They're perfectly free to express their opinion, but we can't do anything."
And even now, almost four years later, her first description of the hunger strike is a slightly bitter, "the time when they tried to keep us from building Currier House." She looks at that period as one of national upheaval, which carried over to anti-authoritarian feelings on campus. "That year there was such a strong feeling against President Johnson, that any president was part of the establishment and suspect. I found it difficult to talk to anyone."
There is undoubtedly some truth in her description, but it seems to have worked both ways: presidents were also considerably tenser. Although Bunting is a wonderful woman in many respects, she has very little feel for politics-perhaps because she is so used to dealing on a personal level. I ler policies and the decisions of her administration unnecessarily alienated many students at that time.
The confrontation with black students a year and a half later was also due to a poor sense of politics. She has a tendency to try to please as many people as possible in any given situation. which ends up in offending all. Black Radcliffe students had asked for a definite commitment on the part of the administration to recruiting more black students. The Class of 1972 had only 13 blacks out of 350 students. Again, a lack of finances was a reason behind the administration's delayed response. Students had asked for a reply to their demand that Radcliffe commit itself financially and in terms of recruiting time to black applicants. They also asked for a black admissions officer.
Instead of replying directly to their demands by the date the students asked, the administration issued a news release several days later stating that Radcliffe's goal for the Class of '73 was 30 black students and that they were committed to finding a black admissions officer. "Her statement ignored our demands completely and was only a restatement of goals which the black students and the Admissions Department had agreed upon way back in May," Diorita C. Fletcher '71, one of the black students negotiating with Radcliffe said. "It was brought to our attention in such a way as to be insulting."
Two days later, on Dec. 10, 1968, while Bunting was at a conference in North Carolina, 25 black Radcliffe students, supported by Harvard students outside, sat-in in Fay House all day to dramatize their demands. Bunting flew back in the afternoon, and in a voice that sounded close to tears read a statement giving $5000 to recruitment of black students that year and pledging to hold the admissions deadline open until at, least 30 blacks were admitted.
Unlike the hunger strike, where the students' demand for any senior who wanted to be allowed to live off-off was not granted until months later, the black students were able to get their demand within a fairly short time. They dealt politically and angrily, and got a response with no accusations of self-interest. This was a situation of considerable confusion, but most pleasing results.
In the following spring, shortly after the occupation of University Hall, Bunting once again became a symbol of controversy. This time it was for the Radcliffe Council's decision to put 17 students on probation who had not satisfactorily prepared a symposium on dissent that was their "punishment" for the Paine Hall sit-in.
A group of about 75 angry students-the majority Harvard males-marched to Fay House on April 29 to confront Bunting. In her person-to-person fashion, she was waiting for them on the steps, determined to talk to them. The crowd pushed by her, most of them not realizing that the quiet gray-haired lady was the woman they had come to confront. There was a ludicrous backing-and-filling, and finally the crowd and the president met in her office. The "discussion" about punishments rapidly degenerated into a shouting match, with the by then familiar cry of "Bullshit!" resounding occasionally. The Radcliffe students were disturbed by the vehemence of many of their male counterparts, and eventually the group left resolving nothing. Bunting faced a TV camera and said, "Like so many other things that go on these days, they take a lot of people's time without really wanting to talk about issues-but that's okay by me."
The incident seemed the consummation of so much of the violence and bitterness of that spring-and Bunting was only coincidentally the recipient, because she had tried to listen. Again, politically she had handled things' dreadfully. To announce the probation of 17 students, several of whom had been arrested in University Hall,while emotions were still running high, was incredibly naive. But she was going by Radcliffe's principles, trying to look on it as a family apart from the chaos across the Common.
After that, things got better. People became interested in merger, and politics became less tense. "This year, it seems that people are less active politically," she said recently.
BUNTING, who will be 62 when she steps down from 12 years as Radcliffe's president, said she did not "have the slightest idea" what she will do next. She ruled out the possibility of a post such as a foundation head. "I'm not interested in running things any more.
"I really felt that about ten years was long enough to be president," she said. "But last year, the whole relationship of Harvard and Radcliffe was so messy that they wouldn't have known what to look for. And I felt I should remain in office one more year as details of the new union are being worked out."
Looking back, she expressed satisfaction with her years here, but added, "There's always something you feel you haven't done."