In Search of an Advocate


THE WEEKEND OF celebration was almost enough to make you believe. Over 1,000 alumnae, distinguished academics from as far away as Liberia, and elaborate party trappings gathered all for Radcliffe's 100th anniversary celebration. Surely the college is alive and thriving.

Where, then, were Radcliffe's current students, the ones who should be the most pleased that Radcliffe still exists to give them an education? Only a handful attended the academic convocation although it was free and featured an excellent speaker. Why did many younger alumnae during the weekends activities say they had no strong feelings about Radcliffe and did not care if it were completely swallowed up inside Harvard? Why does President Horner have to spend more time explaining Radcliffe's confusing status vis-a-vis Harvard than charting a clear path for the future of the college?

Undergraduate women are increasingly losing touch with Radcliffe. Some are bitter that Radcliffe cannot or will not do more for them. Others never felt a need for Radcliffe and don't care what happens to it. Undergraduate women who claim Radcliffe and not Harvard as their college admit that their ties with Radcliffe are purely emotional and symbolic.

The legal and administrative implications of the so-called "non-merger merger" agreement of 1977 between Harvard and Radcliffe can baffle even hard-core bureaucrats. Radcliffe delegated to Harvard all responsibility for undergraduate instruction and affairs, stipulating that women are entitled to "all the rights and privileges accorded Harvard College enrollment." Radcliffe is supposed to actively participate in the formulation of policies affecting women undergraduates and retains jurisdiction over its graduate programs, corporation and endowment.

The new agreement was necessary primarily for financial reasons. Radcliffe did not have the resources to administer its undergraduate programs, and the maintenance of two separate but parallel bureaucracies to run a joint educational program was inefficient at best. The question that remains is why the colleges stopped with only a "non-merger merger?" Why must Radcliffe keep its independent corporate status?


The best advantage of a separate Radcliffe appears to be financial--ironically the same motivation that provoked a merger in the first place. Radcliffe saves money by delegating responsibilities to Harvard, but its independence also entitles it to about $1 million in Federal grants. Radcliffe has some valuable programs--particularly the Schlesinger Library and the Data Resource and Research Center which provide facilities for research about women and their concerns--and these programs might be hurt if they were moved from the top of Radcliffe's priority list to the middle of a Harvard-Radcliffe list.

Both colleges undoubtedly fear the effect a total merger would have on alumni donations. Radcliffe graduates would be less generous if their alma mater existed only as a memory. Harvard alumni, who can tolerate women stalking their ivy-covered halls as long as the women still officially go to Radcliffe, would not take kindly to a total merger either. The problem of alumni resistance to a merger, however, may well fade with time as graduates who have less allegiance to a single-sex college become a majority.

Other reasons for Radcliffe's continuing existence stem from women's needs for progress in an academic community dominated by men and historically hostile to women seeking higher education. Radcliffe has fought an uphill battle for the better part of the last 100 years and has gained for women full access to Harvard classes, full participation in dormitory life, use of all services, and finally, "equal access" admission. Undergraduate women respect Radcliffe for the achievements it has brought about, but many women still see its present role as little more than symbolic.

PART OF THE PROBLEM with Radcliffe's identity is that undergraduate women feel little sense of community. Women are more apt to identify themselves with their House, their department or their extra-curricular activity than with their sex as a whole. Nevertheless, women do encounter problems distinct from those faced by men, and Radcliffe could theoretically address these problems.

There is work to be done by an organization that chooses to be a women's advocate, but it is work that requires an active, agressive force. Affirmative action in employment is barely off the ground at this university where only 11 women hold tenured faculty posts. A women's studies committee is just now being formed to encourage more courses about women and more women-oriented material in existing courses. Progress in both these issues up to now has come mostly from members of the Harvard Faculty and the administration with Radcliffe officials unfortunately limiting their role to behind the scenes observation and comment.

In some ways more problematic than the issues of affirmative action and women's studies are the subtle attitudinal problems women face. Inextricably intertwined with societal norms about the role of men and women in society are explanations why few women concentrate in the natural sciences and why more women than men seek psychiatric counseling while at Harvard. Radcliffe can contribute to our understanding of these phenomena.

SOME INCIDENTS INDICATE that Radcliffe's independent status has disadvantaged women undergraduates. Last year, for instance, a much smaller percentage of women than men on financial aid were able to take work-study jobs because Radcliffe cannot share in funds earmarked for Harvard, a legally separate corporation. Last year, Radcliffe also lost a substantial amount of its federal funding for the National Guaranteed Student Loan program--a cut Harvard did not have to suffer. Officials say they have found other funds so that women will not be hurt relative to men by the occasional distributional inequities of the program, but the mix-up shows that bureaucratic quirks of the current organizational structure can unfairly advantage one sex and hurt the other.

Women's concerns might be better served by an advocate within the mainstream of the Harvard system. By remaining independent, Radcliffe allows Harvard to feel that women are not Harvard's concern. Radcliffe's desire to stay separate also contradicts its goal of producing women who will take their place alongside of and closely connected with men. Undoubtedly, remnants remain of Harvard's former open hostility to women's higher education, and Radcliffe must not cast its students out to deal with Harvard alone. But if Radcliffe wants its graduates to remember the college as more than a symbol or a bad joke, it must either make its existence felt or help set up an organization within Harvard that can wield more clout.