Barry Mills: Conversations About Coeducation

Forty years after the advent of coeducation at Bowdoin, an academic project on the subject prompts Barry Mills to reflect on the period and the leaders who made change possible.


This year is the 40th anniversary of coeducation at Bowdoin. We’re recognizing this important milestone throughout the academic year with lectures, concerts, events, and ultimately with the awarding of honorary degrees at Commencement (more to come on this subject in a few months). A member of our faculty and her class are also looking back on coeducation through an academic project, and on Friday, they launched a website that compiles the work of students studying the initial years of coeducation at Bowdoin.

I was a senior when the first coeducational class matriculated at Bowdoin in the fall of 1971, so it was a real pleasure for me to visit Professor Jennifer Scanlon’s seminar, “Forty Years: The History of Women at Bowdoin.” I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion and I was able to speak quite openly and candidly—especially because the class assured me that my comments would be “off the record.” Each time I find myself in a Bowdoin classroom, I understand how difficult it is to teach well. I also appreciate immediately the intellectual firepower of our students and their tremendous desire to learn.

The website launch event on Friday was well attended, particularly by those who lived through those early days of coeducation. On hand were a number of faculty and even the man who admitted Bowdoin’s first women—our former dean of admissions, Dick Moll. Dick had a profound, vital, and transformative effect on this College, and not surprisingly, he offered his personal take and commentary on the period.

Bowdoin senior Jill Henrikson combs through documents on coeducation in Bowdoin's archives.

My own takeaway from the launch event was the impressive archival work executed by our students. Each time a document was illuminated on the screen, it carried dates that brought me back to the years when I was a student here (with the exception, of course, of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain‘s inaugural address in 1871, in which he first promoted the admission of women to Bowdoin). As students, we don’t always realize that the issues of our time will one day end up being part of the long historical record. But, as I reflect today on my student years at Bowdoin, I remember vividly a tumultuous environment. These were the years of the war in Vietnam, the draft (and the draft lottery), Kent State, student protests, and the height of America’s drug culture. From my perspective, in those days coeducation was among the many “change” issues buzzing around the Bowdoin campus. In my current position, I can only have the greatest respect for the leadership of the College back then. These were people dealing with so much change and so much conflict, yet they were able to see that coeducation—with all of its challenges—was essential for Bowdoin.

Professor Jen Scanlon's 200-level seminar, "Forty Years: The History of Women at Bowdoin"

The rich and important history of women at Bowdoin has yet to be completely written. The other night, I had the pleasure of being the only guy sharing dinner with nearly 20 Bowdoin women in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few were my contemporaries from the 70s, but the group was mostly made up of Bowdoin graduates from the 80s and 90s, with a couple from the early part of the last decade. Listening to their stories about the College is essential to learning about Bowdoin’s history and to informing us as we chart our future. All of these women were thoughtful, bright, confident, and engaged, and they each had their own experiences at the College. Most gratifying to me is that every woman at that dinner loves Bowdoin and is grateful for the opportunity the College created.

Even in my 60s, I still blush a vivid red when I hear some of the stories these women tell of their time at Bowdoin. But these are important conversations for the College, and we are in debt to Professor Scanlon, the members of her class, and to those they interviewed for the history they have published and the conversation they have begun. We must work hard to preserve this history for future generations—to explain how opportunity for women at Bowdoin was created and how it has evolved.

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In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at mills@bowdoin.edu

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available here or on the Bowdoin website.

Comments

  1. Joanie Shepherd says:

    I think it would be interesting to get the background on The Society of Bowdoin Women which was started in 1923….Jeanne d’Arc Mayo would be be the best person to ask.

    Joanie

  2. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    Forty years after the fact and there’s STILL a need to try to justify and defend co-education at Bowdoin? There must still be doubts about it if the subject needs continual rehashing. I fell in love with Bowdoin and went there precisely because it was an all-male institution. When the decision was made to admit women, without consulting the student body (at least no one asked my opinion) it completely changed the character of the college (including the destruction of the fraternity system not to mention the bastardized alma mater). Once Bowdoin became co-educational it ceased being what it had been since its founding: the nurturer of men’s minds. making it just one more co-ed college among many.
    Please – stop talking about it. It’s over and done with.

  3. Michael owens says:

    Great story, has the perspective of the women of color been obtained? Gotta believe they have an additional dimension to contribute. Am particularly interested as a dad of such in the class of 2015 who was also there my senior year 72-73. I was at Vassar in 71-72 experiencing the male equivalent…….

  4. Alice Davison says:

    Only 1 male student in the seminar. Why?

  5. Bill Clark '76 says:

    In response to Al DeMoya’s comment above,I respectfully disagree.

    I would have never considered Bowdoin unless it had become co-ed and we are so much better for it! The Class of 1976 was the second full year of co-education. It was a wonderful time and we still closely maintain our ties to each other and the college.

    Although I respect his perspective (and still prefer to sing Rise Sons instead of Raise Songs,and please don’t start me on the bastardized version of Bowdoin Beata)I cannot imagine my Bowdoin experience without my female friends.

    We just had a Class of 1976 holiday luncheon in NYC with about 30 classmates,of which a third were women,also attended by two integral figures in the process of coeducation-Dean of Admissions Dick Moll and Dean of Students Alice Early. It was a party in the best traditions of Bowdoin. We cherish and love each other with an ardor that transcends gender. No one sang the college songs louder,told the old stories and laughed more uproariously than than our Bowdoin sisters.

    There is no way we could have had the richness of our Bowdoin experience without coeducation. I assure you that all of us from 1976 have no doubts about the wisdom of making that change for Bowdoin!

  6. andrea klinck adams, '80 says:

    Thank you to Bill Clark for his perspective. While I respectfully disagree with Al Demoya’s views on the co~education process, I certainly defend his right to express those views. I imagine it was very difficult for those who had applied to an all male college to embrace such a monumental change.

    I was at Bowdoin witnessing the demise of the fraternity system, and was appalled by the loyalties that some of my “brothers” and dearest friends at Chi Psi chose to defend. It made those of us who had always felt equal in our house suddenly feel completely demoralized. It was a funny thing, because as a naive 21 year old, I suddenly realized that some of my dearest male friends were choosing the national Chi Psi organization over their female friends, and it really stung.

    I have two boys at Bowdoin now, who chose Bowdoin over Colgate and other similar schools partly because they wanted a school that did not have a fraternity system, and believe me it was not due to any undue influence on my part….I really never discussed my feelings regarding what had happened during my time at Bowdoin. One of my sons currently lives in the former Chi Psi, and it is a pleasure for me to be able to walk in knowing that there are no secrets there, no layers of hierarchy, no meetings I can’t attend, and no reason for young men and women to feel pitted against each other. My boys will be lucky enough to never know that women were really second class citizens at Bowdoin during those early days on many levels. In fact, many of their very best friends are indeed women.

    Luckily, I had wonderful friends at Bowdoin, male and female, who are still some of my best friends. And also luckily, I cherish my time at Bowdoin, and count it as one of the most formative and life changing experiences I have ever had, at least so far! And as for those twin boys who are at Bowdoin now, they are lucky to have two parents who stood up for women’s rights during the fraternity crisis…I married a Chi Psi who was firmly in favor of women being full and equal members. It was a risk for him to take that stance, but he was unwavering in his resolve, even though it pitted him against some of his dearest friends. I even own a Chi Psi mug with my name on it, Andy, that he ordered for me as a surprise back in the day. It helps to have an androgynous nickname sometimes!
    Co~education has certainly not hurt Bowdoin in terms of its reputation and its academic excellence. If anything, it has enhanced it. And I am about as proud as a person can be of my Bowdoin diploma, as well as of my two (male) Bowdoin undergrads. I believe my life would have been very different had it not been for my Bowdoin experience, and I will be forever grateful for that. I can only hope that my boys will feel the same way. They, however, will be lucky enough to never know the tension that existed back in the late 70’s, and will hold all their friends, male and female, dearly.
    PS. I like the original “rise sons of Bowdoin” better…I guess it is like some hymns~I just feel okay about the sexist language because of when it was written. I will sing it with pride either way!!

  7. David Dickson, Class of '76 says:

    As a member of the class of ’76, with Bowdoin lineage going back to the 1930’s and the father of a member of the class of 2013, I would like to express my strong support of Bill Clark and Andrea Klink Adams’ excellent comments. The presence of women as equals on the Bowdoin campus has enhanced the educational experience immeasureably and both my son and I were beneficiaries of that development. Gender, racial, and ideological diversity enhance an institution’s educational mission. In addition, with the elimination of the fraternity system, my son has had the opportunity to regularly interact with students with different interests and a wide array of backgrounds. The Bowdoin experience as it has evolved over the last couple of generations is symptomatic of the choices that all of us face in a diverse country and world. We can withdraw into insular enclaves and interact exclusively with people who look and think like us or we can embrace the richness of a world which offers a plurality of voices and perspectives. Bowdoin is a better and stronger institution because it embraced the latter alternative!

  8. Steve Cavanagh '83 says:

    Al DeMoya: there are may coeducational schools with thriving fraternity/sorority systems. The issues with fraternities at Bowdoin were welll documented in the report of the Committee to Review Fraternities in the late 1980’s. The legal ambiguity of organizations that owned their own houses, but were tightly connected financially with the College, including via college room and board bills, Central Dining and Security, left the College exposed without control. Facilties were not up to code and presented safety issues. Sexual assaults and alcohol abuse were not isolated to fraternities, but added a layer of challenge. Coeducation was not the only cause of house decline. Times have changed.

    My objection to the discontinuation of fraternities was making membership in a “self-selecting, self-perpetuating independent social organization” a violation of the social code. By mandating that sophmores live in college-owned housing, the College took an additional step to prevent the fraternities from existing as entities truly independent of the College. Assigning people randomly to a specific College House seemed contrived, as people everywhere associate with others of shared interests. Ironically, one of the reasons Alpha Rho Upsilon closed prior to the College mandate is the lack of cohesiveness and common purpose that builds and grows self-selected organizations.

  9. Michael Coye says:

    I think it worthwhile for Bowdoin to take a look at the process through which it became coeducational. It was a significant institutional change and lessons from it might help inform future efforts at change. To that end, I was disappointed to see that a representative segment of the student population was not interviewed for this project. From the website, it appears that only one male student from the early days of coeducation was included in all of the interviews and focus groups. My class (’75) was the first to admit women as freshmen and I recall being told that the male:female ratio was 13:1 our freshman year. (It might actually been lower but it certainly seemed much higher.) There were therefore many more males than females affected by the decision. The views of several of my female classmates have been solicited. No males from my class were interviewed. Were none available?

  10. Al DeMoya, '72 says:

    @ Michel Coye: Could it be the desire to avoid dissenting opinions such as mine?

  11. James Gillen, '67 says:

    The class of 1967, represented by its president and the editor of the Bowdoin Orient, in a joint article, called for the end to fraternities and the introduction of co-education in the spring of 1967, prior to graduation.

    A number of consultations and discussions with Trustees and Overseers also took place at that time. By the fall of 1967 and into the spring of 1968 there was a major student revolt, classes and exams were halted in the spring of 1968, as on many college compuses, principally due to the increasing anger over Vietnam, but not only limited to that issue.

    This was also a revolt against tradition – and led to some radical initiatives, like the ‘free university’ which allowed faculty to hold seminars on any subject they chose, without approval, and continued for a year or so. In this context, the subject of traditional elements of Bowdoin, such as the fraternity system and co-education was part of the dialog.

    Co-education did not just suddenly emerge – without a pre-history.

    The role of the Trustees and Overseers in the ultimate decision needs to be researched, as it was not unilateral but took in many voices, including from students, as is clear in the record.

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