Over the Cliffe
AN HISTORIC era for Radcliffe College will come to a close at the end of the next academic year when, as announced last week, Matina S. Horner will end a presidential tenure that began in 1972. Since that time Radcliffe and Harvard Colleges have formally integrated. The women of Radcliffe College and the men of Harvard College now share a single admissions office, classrooms, and residence halls. During the recent years of Horner's presidency, Radcliffe has focused increasingly on developing its resources for advanced study, the Bunting Institute, the Murray Research Center and the Schlesinger Library.
Radcliffe's emphasis on research has positioned the University to contribute significantly to women's scholarship. It also implicitly attests that the undergraduate women of Radcliffe have in a very real sense become Harvard undergraduates. And that's how it should be.
Radcliffe trustees should now recognize that it's not necessary--or wise--for Horner's successor to be the nominal president of a Harvard women's college. The massive institute for women's concerns which Radcliffe has become does require a new leader. Yet Radcliffe, the college, no longer exists in fact. It need not exist any longer in name.
IN FAILING to acknowledge Radcliffe's actual and clearly understood educational role, the University sends the message that the women's studies-oriented topics of Radcliffe's seminars and programs deserve only the attention of a "college" with neither the autonomy nor the facilities to meet the primary intellectual and personal needs of its students. Just as Radcliffe is referred to (but not thought of) as an undergraduate college, so the fact that women's concerns deserve serious consideration becomes something said--but not believed.
As a result, Harvard College bars itself from addressing what Radcliffe's most vocal supporters are the first to call its inattention to women's concerns. Radcliffe's nominal existence as a college also excuses other University failings cited by women's activists. Although, for instance, women are notably absent from the University's top posts, Radcliffe's status makes it possible for a female college president to share the podium with Harvard's male leaders at freshmen orientations and Commencements--albeit a female college president without the authority and prestige of men with similar titles.
FORMAL recognition of Radcliffe's status no doubt would meet opposition from Radcliffe administrators, ever aware of Radcliffe's importance both to its alumnae and to the history of women's education in America. Yet there is no reason why Radcliffe's place in history should be undermined if its current real function, as an institute, is acknowledged.
While recognizing Radcliffe's actual status would doubtlessly entail working through a century and a half's bureaucratic entanglements, such entanglements exist to be worked through. And Radcliffe's vestigial hierarchy at times presents very real problems. For example, when leaks began plaguing the QRAC several years ago, the Quad's athletic facility remained closed for six months while Radcliffe and Harvard officials quarrelled over how repairs should proceed.
SURPRISINGLY OFTEN, those who argue for the perpetuation of Radcliffe's nominal college status don't claim that it benefits undergraduates or helps the University run smoothly. Instead they make the unprincipled argument that Radcliffe would be less appealing to the generosity of older alumnae were its name to change. These alumnae, the argument goes, might give less if it were clear that their donations supported an institution markedly different from the one they remember, one that now focusesed on advanced scholarship rather than primary undergraduate education.
The argument is a sound one; perhaps Radcliffe alums wouldn't be so generous if they understood what their money supported. But it's hard to justify the University's continuing a deception simply because doing so effectively parts graduates and their money.
The Harvard College of 1989 should not be allowed to pass off its rightful responsibilities to its female undergraduates. If seminars, externships or special administrators are needed, the College itself should have them. To ask anything less of the College is to excuse it for failing to become a place where women can compete on an equal footing with men--or to fail to acknowledge its success in becoming such a place. Either is unfair to both Harvard and its women.