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So Long, Radcliffe

After 120 years, the storied women's college is redefined


A hundred and twenty years after it was founded to give women access to a Harvard education and after more than a year of speculation over its fate, Radcliffe College is no more. Radcliffe and Harvard announced yesterday that Radcliffe will relinquish its independence--and college title--and become the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study under the Harvard umbrella. Female students will no longer be admitted to Radcliffe College; instead they will join their male colleagues in direct admission to Harvard College. The Radcliffe seal on women's diplomas may well be a thing of the past come the graduation of the class of 2000. The long-awaited decision is the right one, acknowledging that Radcliffe is no longer a provider of undergraduate education (indeed, it has not been since at least 1977) and freeing the now Institute to focus solely on its mission of "studying women, gender and society" instead of wasting energy as an ill-defined 'college.'

At the end of June, Linda S. Wilson will step down from her post as the last president of Radcliffe. After a difficult year of fielding endless questions and piloting what she liked to call the canoe of Radcliffe alongside Harvard's overpowering supertanker, she is probably relieved to be moving on. Director of the Schlesinger Library Mary Maples Dunn will serve as the interim dean of the new institute. As an experienced administrator (she formerly served as president of Smith College), she seems an excellent choice for the position but will face the difficult task of guiding Radcliffe through its continuing evolution.

While yesterday's announcement answered several questions and clearly puts Radcliffe on the road to a better-defined existence, there are still several issues to be addressed. Most important to students will be the fate of Radcliffe's several undergraduate programs, which under federal law can no longer be single-sex offerings. The Office of Career Services and Radcliffe should work carefully together to ensure that no opportunity for undergraduates--male or female--is lost as those programs are folded into the Harvard system. The fate of the Radcliffe Union of Students is a bit more uncertain; as Radcliffe's officials student government, it was funded by the former college and now faces a doubtful future. There is no doubt that the redefinition of Radcliffe was a necessity, but Harvard now must prove to those female undergraduates who may feel the loss of Radcliffe that the University is up to the task of filling any void left by the changed status. Today's press conference at Fay House announcing the preliminary plans for the future should be followed by clear and constant communication with students and alumnae as the details are worked out, and Dunn has promised such an effort.

Meanwhile, Radcliffe's official dissolution as a college marks the end of an era for alumnae who knew it as their alma mater. From a historical perspective, it is important to remember that without Radcliffe, women might never have had a chance to take classes from Harvard professors, sit in Harvard classes or finally move into housing in Harvard Yard. That women students will now officially be admitted to Harvard College along with the men is ultimately a reflection of the immense contribution of Radcliffe to the lives of women students over the last century. In its incarnation as the Institute for Advanced Study, Radcliffe now seems poised for a new century of contributions to women's scholarship and advancement.

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