When she was chosen to succeed Radcliffe President Wilbur K. Jordan in June 1959, Mary I. Bunting-Smith conceded that, with just one visit to the Cambridge campus under her belt, she certainly had "a lot to learn about Radcliffe."
How ironic that 39 years later, Radcliffe's future plans may depend on further scrutiny of Bunting-Smith's own groundbreaking achievements during her term as president of the college.
For 12 years, beginning in 1960, "Polly" Bunting, as she was fondly known, was a figure of stability at a time of great unrest at the University. As students took over University Hall and protested the Vietnam War, Bunting-Smith established a reputation as a Radcliffe devotee, an administrator interested in bettering women's education both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
"She was somebody who was very caring, very committed to undergraduates and very committed to women and opening up opportunities for women," recalls Carol F. Lieberman '61, an undergraduate for one year during President Bunting-Smith's tenure and currently president of the Radcliffe Club of Boston. "She had a very down-to-earth and realistic way of trying to open up possibilities for women."
Founding various support policies and programs--including a habit of leaving her porch light on to invite students to visit and talk with her late at night--Bunting-Smith gained the appreciation of hundreds of Radcliffe undergraduates.
Along with this genuine interest in students and campus life, a survey of Bunting-Smith's presidency reveals an unswerving devotion to rationalism and, in the words of one fellow administrator, an ability to always "look at the big picture."
These characteristics are what--six months after her death--lead some to suppose that Bunting-Smith would be understanding and perhaps even supportive of current negotiations to end Radcliffe's status as an undergraduate college and refocus its objective toward becoming a premier women's research facility.
Arguably Bunting-Smith's most successful effort to open up possibilities for women was the establishment of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, founded in 1961 and renamed the Bunting Institute in her honor in 1978. One of her first proposals as president, the Institute was created to help women whose careers were interrupted by family obligations to continue their academic research.
In a 1961 New York Times Magazine article, Bunting-Smith noted that the Institute's program was "tailored to fit the pattern of women's lives." As the Institute opened, she pointed to it as "a place to work free from the unpredictable distractions of family life, the compulsion to pursue the daily routine at the expense of a half-finished conception or dream, and the guilt over children rebuffed or questions unanswered."
Much of Bunting-Smith's vision of a facility where women could revive their academic studies came from her experience as a mother. In the '40s, she left her own microbiology work to raise four children while husband Henry Bunting taught at Yale University.
Although she was willing to give up academic interests to raise her children, Bunting-Smith remained active in her local community and its politics, later expressing frustration at the lack of expectations for women in society--particularly in academics.
"One prodigious national extravagance has been largely overlooked," she wrote of American affluence in the '50s and early '60s: "The waste of highly talented, educated womanpower."
At the time, the proposed Institute was quite controversial.
"The Bunting was so revolutionary at that point that everyone was not convinced," says Louise Donovan, who served as Bunting-Smith's executive assistant for the duration of her presidency. At the time debate raged concerning the legitimacy of Bunting-Smith's vision of working women returning to academic fields.