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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Radcliffe's announcement yesterday that it will drop its designation as a college fulfills a promise its founders made 120 years ago.
In 1879, Harvard officials adamantly refused to integrate female students into the University, but eventually agreed upon a compromise that allowed young women to take classes offered by Harvard professors.
The "Harvard Annex," as the women's institution was called when it enrolled its first students that year, was founded with a dual purpose: "to furnish instruction and the opportunities of collegiate life to women, and to promote their higher education."
Both a greater acceptance of educated women in society and the unusual circumstances of history required Radcliffe to continuously redefine its role. Radcliffe students gained full access to Harvard's opportunities, and the college they left behind added research institutes to give itself new aims.
This evolution has forced the two administrations to remain in intermittent talks about their proper relationship.
Yesterday's announcement amounts to more than a new twist in that relationship. The final, formal incorporation of women into Harvard College marks the end of a century-long dance between two institutions that have found it hard not to step on each other's toes.
Separate and Unequal
When the college that would become Radcliffe made its debut in the fall of 1879, it was the first full-scale attempt ever made to give women a Harvard education. President Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, said he would consider opening lectures to "mature women" upon taking office in 1869, but despite some attempts in the early 1870s, nothing came of the proposal.
By the end of the decade, a group of Cambridge residents approached Eliot to ask for an institution of higher education comparable to Harvard where they could send their daughters. They proposed a separate women's "annex" that would employ Harvard professors to teach its classes.
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, widow of Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz, was named the first president of the Annex. Under Agassiz's tenure, Radcliffe expanded from a tiny institution on Appian Way with 27 students and one small building to a fully chartered college located in a converted mansion, Fay House.
Though the Annex was considered a tentative experiment when it was first founded, in the 1880s Agassiz pushed for a formal relationship with Harvard.
Although some women's rights advocates of the time insisted that Harvard do away with the Annex and grant degrees directly to women, in 1894 Eliot agreed to co-sign diplomas issued by the Annex, which became a separate women's college. It was named after Ann Radcliffe, the first female donor to the University.
The Road to Coeducation
Many Harvard affiliates feared the introduction of women into the University community. Professor Barrett Wendell decried "the unobserved encroachment of women that sapped the pure virility of the Harvard tradition and undermined Harvard as a school for manly character" in 1899.
Relations between Harvard and Radcliffe deteriorated further under President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, who headed Harvard in the 1910s and '20s. According to Radcliffe lore, Lowell hoped to "drown three kittens" before his term ended: Harvard's Botanic Garden, the Harvard School of Education--and Radcliffe College.
But during World War II, when many Harvard men were sent overseas, Faculty members grumbled about making the trek to Radcliffe and duplicating their already under-attended lectures. In 1943, the two institutions agreed to share responsibility for female undergraduates: Harvard would phase in mixed-sex class-rooms (completed in 1947), but Radcliffe would continue to maintain separate residential housing.
Radcliffe women though were not fully students at the College, with only a patchwork of privileges. As President James B. Conant '14 said in 1952, "Harvard is not coeducational in theory, only in practice."
The system remained awkward under Radcliffe President Mary I. Bunting, who took the helm in 1960. Bunting helped Radcliffe grow substantially, building Hilles Library in 1966 and Currier House in 1970. But despite Radcliffe's expansion during the '60s, Bunting was unable to save the college from financial instability. In the 1968-69 school year, Radcliffe's debt stood at more than $200,000; the debt tripled in the next three years.
In 1971, a landmark "non-merger merger" agreement gave Harvard control of Radcliffe's day-to-day operations, including housing female undergraduates. Bunting stepped down the following year.
Her replacement, 32-year-old Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology Matina S. Horner, presided over a college stripped both of its students and its resources--the 1971 agreement gave Harvard all of the income Radcliffe collected from tuition and its endowment. Radcliffe officials were increasingly unsatisfied with their lack of control. As then-chair of Radcliffe's Board of Trustees Susan S. Lyman '49 said, "When you fold your corporation into another corporation, it's over--you eliminate any power you have."
In 1977, Horner negotiated a new arrangement with President Derek C. Bok that has governed the relationship until now.
Under the agreement, Radcliffe preserved its legal independence and regained fiscal control from Harvard. Male and female undergraduates were admitted through a joint Harvard-Radcliffe Office of Admissions, an arrangement that began in 1975.
Immediately upon enrolling at Radcliffe, the responsibility for educating and housing women passed to Harvard. Female students have technically had a "dual citizenship" at Harvard and Radcliffe, but in practice, the signature of Radcliffe's president on their diplomas was one of the few tangible signs of that divide.
The Wilson Era
When Linda S. Wilson became Radcliffe's seventh president on July 1, 1989, she was widely expected to continue the status quo. Wilson, a former vice president at the University of Michigan, was considered less a strong feminist than an experienced administrator who would manage the college's long-term future.
There were few indications that the Wilson era would see radical rethinking of Radcliffe's identity. When The Boston Globe reported a year ago last week that Harvard and Radcliffe were in secret merger negotiations, the news came as a bombshell on campus and beyond.
Radcliffe officials admitted the college was engaged in a "strategic planning process," but they divulged few other details, even in the face of intense media scrutiny and complaints from alumnae. A week after the story broke, Peggy M. McIntosh '56, second vice president of the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association (RCAA), resigned in protest of the official silence.
But outside the negotiating room, the debate raged in public among students and alumnae. About 70 students rallied in Radcliffe Yard and outside University Hall in April to support Radcliffe's undergraduate programs and services. Graduates debated the merits of various unofficial proposals.
Wilson continued the discussion, touring 10 cities in October to gather opinions about Radcliffe's future. But she remained reticent in her public statements, as did Radcliffe Board of Trustees Chairman Nancy-Beth G. Sheer '71 and her Harvard colleagues.
Meanwhile, five top administrators announced their resignations within months of each other.
High-level sources said earlier this spring that at points the negotiations were rocky, with both sides close to breaking off discussions. Frustration ran high in the two camps until more serious progress was made in recent weeks.
Yesterday's historic agreement--which creates a new Institute for Advanced Study while eliminating Radcliffe's official claim to undergraduates and the position of Radcliffe president--is far from finalized. And while Harvard and Radcliffe officials will now also need to appease alumnae and student concerns, Wilson, who will step down in June, said the merger is an exciting development in Radcliffe's evolution: "This is a cause for celebration." Jane S. Knowles, Radcliffe archivist, assisted in the researching of this article.
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