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Mary Maples Dunn, who took the helm of Radcliffe during its 1999 merger with Harvard, died March 19. She was 85.
When Dunn took over as acting dean of what was then the brand-new Radcliffe Institute, she had to navigate a unique transition—shifting the all-female Radcliffe College, focused on educating undergraduate women, to an institute now dedicated to research and advanced study.
The Crimson reported at the time that many welcomed Dunn’s leadership. She had spent decades in academia focused on educating women, with leadership posts at Bryn Mawr and a decade spent as president of Smith College. She also served as the head of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.
Dunn told The Crimson that attending Bryn Mawr, a women’s college, for her graduate education opened her eyes to “an unreal kind of world.”
“I was in a place that was pretty much run by women and for women,” Dunn said.
Dunn was born in 1931 in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. The daughter of a homemaker and a haberdasher, Dunn went off to the College of William and Mary to study history at a time when many southern schools remained segregated.
Shortly before she became interim dean of Radcliffe at age 68, Dunn suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. But that was not enough to stop her from taking on a critical role in a decisive moment of Radcliffe history.
“She was so widely liked and respected that she was kind of an emollient in the midst of the controversy surrounding the transition,” University President Drew G. Faust told the Harvard Gazette.
Faust was a student of Dunn’s at Bryn Mawr, and told the Gazette that Dunn was one of her favorite teachers. Faust succeeded her as president of the Institute in 2001. That year, Dunn was awarded the Radcliffe Medal.
Lizabeth Cohen, the current dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, wrote in an email that she first met Dunn when she was director of the Schlesinger Library.
“I was impressed with the energy and vision Mary was bringing to the Library,” Cohen wrote, adding that she was “relieved” to hear Dunn would be heading the merger as acting dean.
Cohen wrote that Dunn led with “a sparkling personality and a twinkling eye.”
“She was a rare treasure,” Cohen added.
According to the New York Times, Dunn is survived by her husband, Richard S. Dunn—who is also a historian—two daughters, a brother, and three grandchildren.
The Radcliffe Institute will hold a memorial service for Dunn at the Knafel Center on April 8.
—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LeahYared.
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