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Standing Up For Radcliffe

An Alumna Argues For the Future of the Women's College

By Prudence Carlson

It is deeply troubling to learn that the present struggle over Radcliffe's role, structure and identity continues to be reduced in so many minds to an instance of "silly....squabbling" (to quote one recent letterwriter to The New York Times). What's in a name these reductivists or simplifiers ask, other than confusion and "time-wasting," when Radcliffe does not hire its own faculty (though it never did) and when, since 1977, it no longer admits its own students. For whatever reasons of their own, some refuse to comprehend that Radcliffe ideally still has a role to play that Harvard will never pick up and fill.

Radcliffe's original mandate to safeguard its women students' access to higher education, in part by providing a "safe place" or sanctuary in which women might unconstrainedly think, discuss, interrogate, disagree and vigorously explore, is now possibly less dispensable than ever.

The stakes in Radcliffe's survival as an undergraduate women's institution--the stakes not only for women but also for men, not only for students but also for alumnae (whose lives as such are much longer than a short four student years)--are vastly greater and more complex than a description of "silly squabbling," of petty sibling bickering, would make them seem. These stakes trace directly back to Harvard's diehard historic image as America's premier gentlemen's club; to Harvard's increasing neglect of undergraduate life and instruction as its professional graduate schools have become even more gargantuan pots and magnets for both private and governmental funding and attention; and above all to Harvard's special connection not to liberal arts education, but to prestige, power and money.

Despite the protestations of Harvard's dean of undergraduate studies, Harvard College--into which Radcliffe College would be swallowed wholesale--has long been treated by the University as a kind of encumbrance upon its mission of expanding importance in the world. This is not to say that the University is unaware of its dependence upon the College for no small degree of its academic luster, or that it is at all ignorant of the College as a hatchery of potential big-time donors. When I returned to Cambridge last spring for my 25th reunion, what I heard over and over from the men as well as the women undergraduates employed as reunion aides was that Harvard had left them--exactly as it had left my male classmates nearly three decades ago--to bewilderingly wander and flounder. Harvard offers virtually no academic counseling about possible courses of study or concentrations, thus robbing students of any capacity to glean the most from their educational experience. It provides even less guidance for the heart and soul, adroit psychological counseling--evidence of a caring in loco parentis--being somehow distasteful and undignified to the institution of Harvard, and this ironically at the very point students are crossing that emotional minefield between adolescence and young man--or womanhood. Harvard's famous house system, however appealingly genteel, addresses neither of these gaps and remains grossly inadequate to undergraduate needs, the ratio of students to master being far too huge and the accident of a happy match between student and master being far too uncommon. Is this the environment to which we would unreservedly consign undergraduate women?

By contrast Radcliffe, at least during my years there, gave women other recourse, counseling and an attentive ear.

For those two-and-a-half years between 1968 (and the "opening" of Lamont) and 1971 (the beginning of the coresidential experiment), Radcliffe had a brief halcyon spell and the best of both worlds. We had then, at the ages of 17, 18, 19, 20, protective nurturing from a college that existed exclusively for us, in tandem with untrammeled access to Harvard's faculty, libraries and classrooms. Perhaps even more importantly, we had the privilege of being introduced into a community of women, then physically still intact, that would prove in after years an even more invaluable resource.

The proposal to reductively reinvent Radcliffe as a policy institute is pathetic. The value, real or potential, of Radcliffe for both women students and alumnae would be thrown away entirely. Women undergraduates would sacrifice forever the advantages of attending a college vitally attuned to their concerns and expressly designed to answer their needs; alumnae would sacrifice forever inclusion in that community of women, which given the intransigent realities of modern sexual politics, can alone provide them with a bulwark and ongoing network of support in their lives beyond the University. These sacrifices are to be made with no return whatsoever (the Bunting Institute and the Schlesinger Library are already thriving entities); and they are to be made solely in order to allow Harvard to vaunt before the world how much it has done for women--in a kind of belated public spasm of political correctness--by affiliating to itself a "Radcliffe Institute." More materially, these sacrifices are to be made so that Harvard may garner unto itself all alumni/alumnae dollars--it is currently prohibited from fundraising directly from Radcliffe classes prior to 1977--and that it may absorb into itself Radcliffe's considerable endowment and not insignificant real estate. Who gains and who loses in this arrangement should be glaringly obvious, but apparently is not so to Radcliffe's administration and to many past and present students.

For Radcliffe's administration to insouciantly walk into this proposed arrangement with Harvard is not, by any stretch of the imagination, to secure parity for women, rather it is to weakly seek an old-fashioned sort of wifely dependency. In my day as an undergraduate, we had a crude but effective word for such arrangements: Radcliffe is simply lying down to be co-opted. At this moment, it could use at its head a tough, tactically shrewd firebrand. But do you think Harvard would stomach it?

The loss of Radcliffe for women and, by extension, for the men with whom Radcliffe women associate is the loss of a glorious exemption, however temporary, from the seductive "rewards" that are also binds, of the world. Even, or rather more egregiously, at Harvard University, that supposed scholarly enclave, Career has become, precisely as Radcliffe has been dying, the Be-all and End-All.

Rather than systemically whittling Radcliffe College down to nothing, why aren't its and Harvard's administrations willing to see Radcliffe's role enhanced, enlarged? Were Radcliffe administrators to sit down with Radcliffe students and alumnae with women faculty, I have no doubt but that support for this enhancement--this "re-incorporation"--would be widespread. For example, to begin with, let some of the undergraduate residences be exclusively for men, so that students have a choice over this aspect of their living arrangements. Also, let women faculty be invited--or perhaps even inducted--into a scholastic mentoring program for women undergraduates.

In New York, Columbia and Barnard amicably get on, with Columbia, while respecting Barnard's autonomy, also acknowledging that the women's college is an "ornament" in the old-fashioned sense--a real enhancement--to the university. Why can't Harvard and Radcliffe, so abundantly equipped with minds and means, achieve a relationship somewhat similar?

Prudence Carlson '72 graduated from Radcliffe College.

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