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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

President/Dean Inherits Half-Merged College

By Lynn M. Darling

Since Radcliffe's inception in 1879, most women there have encountered the same dilemma--thinking of themselves as being part of Harvard but being officially recognized only as students at a small women's college further up the road.

The problems resulting from this ambiguity have turned out to be a great deal more consequential than the matter of official recognition would seem to imply--they revolved around what it meant to be a female student within the male-oriented Harvard machinery. The difficulties run the gauntlet from the troublesome male stereotypes of the typical Cliffie, and her overreaction in trying to combat those stereotypes, to Radcliffe's lack of a separate identity, to the subtle and not so subtle forms of chauvinism which display themselves in Harvard classrooms, the Harvard Administration, and the very structure of the University itself.

And so it was that Radcliffe President Mary I. Bunting's first announcement in February of 1969 that the college had decided to propose a merger to the Harvard Corporation, was greeted with both sighs of relief and exuberant cheers of anticipation by the majority of the Radcliffe community.

It seemed, at the time, that the arbitrary distinctions which had always divided Radcliffe women from their brothers at Harvard were finally destined to fall, and that the women who for years had attended the same classes, been taught by the same professors, worked in the same organizations, and received the same diplomas as Harvard men, were finally going to be recognized as full and equal members of the Harvard community.

Once this was achieved, the reasoning went, the ponderous gates of Harvard's male tradition would be flung wide open, and visionaries saw the impending merger as a way in which the Harvard experience would finally belong as much to women as it did to men, with coeducational housing and equal admissions the seemingly inevitable result of the dissolution of Radcliffe as a separate entity.

On that day two and a half years ago, the merger with Harvard appeared as the final step in a process which had begun when Radcliffe had first come into being: It seemed, in fact, the destination toward which it had been heading since its inception as "The Society for Intercollegiate Instruction of Women," or, as it was known more informally, the "X College" or "Harvard annex." The original Radcliffe charter hinted at its eventual absorption into the University, and throughout the years, progress--although erratic and often blocked by recalcitrance on both sides--was made toward that goal.

In 1943, coeducational classes began, with Harvard agreeing to take full responsibility for Radcliffe students's instruction in exchange for a commensurate portion of Radcliffe's tuition. Prior to that time, Radcliffe had employed Harvard professors who were paid by Radcliffe and taught in Radcliffe buildings. Now the Cliffies ventured into the same lecture halls as Harvard students, although in the beginning, they were required to stand in the back in case there were only enough seats for the men.

In 1962, Radcliffe students began receiving Harvard diplomas, although the first joint Commencement was not held until 1970. In the meantime, separate registration was abolished and even Lamont Library became coed, although once Cliffies penetrated its gloomy interior, they must have wondered whether it was actually worth the struggle.

"We shall be happy to join with you in discussion of when and how a merger might be effected... We can say at once that in principle we welcome the prospect of a merger and we are grateful to the Radcliffe Council for initiating the question."

So read the Corporation's letter of acceptance upon receipt of Radcliffe's proposal in early March of 1969. The letter stated that the question would first have to be considered by the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences to determine its willingness to accept responsibility for all aspects of women's education over and above that of academic programs over which they already retained control.

The Faculty was to begin its discussion of the merger that spring, but the tumultuous events of University Hall and its aftermath tabled the issue for the rest of the year. Plans, however, were proceeding for the implementation of the first coed housing experiment to take place the following year, and the realization of that aspect of merger--the prospect of which had provided much of the impetus for the merger's original proposal--overshadowed some of the merger's more far-reaching implications.

One foreboding note, however, was sounded by Dean Franklin Ford: "The most brutal formulation of the problem is that a merger might mean achieving sexual diversity at the expense of other kinds of diversity." It was an ominous warning, whose full intent would only become clear as it was re-echoed again and again by other members of the Faculty and Administration.

As the first Cliffies to live in Harvard Houses with official blessing moved into Adams, Lowell, and Winthrop in the Spring of 1970, the pressure for equal admissions at Harvard upon realization of the merger began to come from various women's groups, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Harvard Women's Law Students Association, as well as from some of the alumnae.

The Faculty, sensing the impact of these demands on Harvard's inexorably male tradition, avoided endorsement of the merger by proposing the creation of a new committee to study the full implications of the proposal--bringing to five the number of such committees.

"The Faculty is not now ready to say they're in favor of such a close relationship," said President Pusey as he announced that Harvard would not be ready for a merger by the June 30, 1970 deadline originally proposed. "Call this male chauvinist if you like, but there are many people here who would be unhappy to see the number of men reduced."

Some women were having second thoughts as well, as they pondered how effectively their voices would be heard on the issues vital to their interests, once Radcliffe no longer had a voice of her own.

The fears of President Pusey and the faculty found themselves expressed in a number of ways throughout the year, varying somewhat in style and subtlety, but re-iterating, in general, the same intent. Dr. Chase W. Peterson, '52, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, argued that an increase in the number of women in the University would decrease the amount of diversity, a logic that airily dismissed the possibility that the various minorities, economic classes and academic interests that the University might wish to woo, could just as easily come in two sexes rather than one.

F. Skiddy Von Stade, dean of Freshmen, preferred to attack the problem more bluntly: "When I see the bright well-educated, but relatively dull housewives who attended the 'Seven Sisters,' I honestly shudder at the thought of changing the balance of males vs. females at Harvard," he said in a letter to a Radcliffe admissions officer. "Quite simply. I do not see highly educated women making startling strides in contributing to our society in the foreseeable future. They are not, in my opinion, going to stop getting married and: or have children. They will fail in their present role as women if they do."

Von Stade expressed concern in the letter that such feelings might strike some as being slightly chauvinistic: "I hope I am not being anti-feminist in the above," he wrote. "But rather that this is a realistic appraisal of woman's part in making our world sensible for at least viable)."

The end result of the seemingly endless deliberations, misgivings, and entrenched prejudices, was the demise of the hopes for full merger between the two schools. It came in the form of a proposal by the Harvard-Radcliffe Relationships Committee (whose membership consisted of two members each of the Radcliffe Board of Trustees and the Corporation, as well as Presidents Pusey and Bunting members ex officio).

Dubbed the "non-merger merger," the report stated that "a total merger of Radcliffe College into Harvard University is not desirable at this time... These arrangements avoid the primary drawbacks of a merger and the loss of flexibility necessary for adjustment to rapidly changing ideas concerning the role of women in the University..."

The Committee's report made the following recommendations:

* Radcliffe will retain ownership of its property and endowment.

* Harvard will assume the operation of Hilles Library as well as the day to day operation of college buildings and dining services.

* Radcliffe will pay to Harvard 100 percent of its income from endowment, tuition fees rents and Harvard will assume the total expense of Radcliffe's operation, including joint fundraising.

* Radcliffe's Houses will become part of a unified House System under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and.

* Radcliffe will retain control of Schlesinger Library, the Radcliffe Institute, the Alumnae Officer and financial aids and admissions.

The plan provided for a contract to be reviewed in the academic year 1974-75, at which time. Radcliffe will be given the option of reverting to its original status within the University.

The plan was approved by the Radcliffe Board of Trustees in late January of 1971, by the Harvard Corporation in early February and by the Harvard Board of Overseers in March. It gained its final endorsement on June 29, when it was accepted by the Radcliffe College Council.

In its final draft the plan was accepted as the 1971 Amendment, extending the contract between the two institutions which was drawn up in 1943, when the Harvard Faculty first took official responsibility for the education of Radcliffe students.

The net result of the "non-merger merger" is a situation in which the two institutions are virtually merged financially, but retain their identities as separate, distinct institutions. While Radcliffe's financial situation is unquestionably bolstered by the arrangement, the question of equal admissions is neatly side-stepped, since admissions to the two colleges is still to be handled separately.

Some of the women in the Radcliffe community who at one time favored the idea of total merger are now relieved that the accepted version leaves room for Radcliffe to maintain her own identity. They point to the new sense of pride and spirit that has developed at the college throughout the past two years, due largely to the physical transformation that has taken place--the addition of men. Currier House, resident tutors, workshops. House seminars, and even grills-and see that as an indication of Radcliffe's acceptance of herself as entity distinct--and preferably so--from Harvard.

Other women, however, have greeted the final version of the merger with emotions ranging from frustration to despair. They see the compromise as an effective burial of the issue of equal admissions for the next four years and question the amount of power the new position of dean will have in safeguarding the concerns of women within the University. To these women, nothing much has been changed. Harvard is still licensed to continue its tradition of supplying the country with its leaders--while maintaining its position of defining those leaders as almost exclusively male--while the interests of women continue to be relegated to a subordinate position, with Radcliffe still following two steps behind in Harvard's wake.

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