An interview with Nancy Malkiel on the struggle for coeducation

MalkielAt the end of the 1960s, a change swept elite institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom: In a remarkably brief span of time, a large number of traditional, conservative, highly prestigious colleges and universities began admitting women. In her new book, Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University professor Nancy Weiss Malkiel examines the historic shift, revealing that contrary to popular belief, the decision was less a moral response to female activists than a strategic one made largely by powerful men. Recently, Malkiel took the time to answer questions about her new book.

What led you to write a book about coeducation?

NM: It’s partly autobiographical. I had been a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-/late 1960s, when the relationship between Harvard and Radcliffe was beginning to be addressed. I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 as one of the first three women in the professorial ranks; 1969 also happened to be the year when the first women undergraduates arrived. I served as dean of the college, with responsibility for undergraduate education at Princeton, for 24 years. At the same time, I graduated from and served as a trustee of Smith, a women’s college that decided not to go coed. I was very interested in how coeducation came to be embraced at Princeton and so many other elite men’s schools, in why Smith decided against coeducation, and in how women’s education worked in the institutions I knew best.

I was also very interested in processes of institutional change. How did very old, very traditional, very elite institutions decide to go coed? What factors influenced their decision-making? Who provided leadership? Who supported change? Who resisted change? How were competing interests adjudicated?

What made coeducation such a struggle?

NM: There was intense opposition to coeducation, mainly on the part of alumni who treasured their undergraduate experience and thought that admitting women would ruin the camaraderie, the special ambiance that had made all-male institutions so successful. The title of this book comes from a letter from one Ivy League alumnus who wrote, in opposing coeducation, “For God’s sake, for everyone’s sake, keep the damned women out.” Very often, coeducation was instituted over the very strong objections of these alumni. Many of these men later came to change their views when their daughters and granddaughters sought admission to their now-coeducational alma maters.

Your book focuses on decisions for coeducation in a very brief period of time – essentially, 1969-74. Why?

NM: There was a flood of decisions for coeducation in these years, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. That’s when coeducation came to be instantiated at most of the very traditional, very conservative, very elite single-sex institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The decade of the 1960s bore on the timing: with the civil rights movement, the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, it was no wonder that colleges and universities began reconsidering many aspects of the educational arrangements that had served them for centuries.

What was the most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research?

NM: Coeducation was not the product of organized efforts by women activists. Decisions for coeducation were made by powerful men (Mary Ingraham Bunting, the president of Radcliffe, is the sole exception here). And they were acting not on some moral imperative, not on a high-minded commitment to the education of women, but on straightforward self-interest: Coeducation was embraced as a means of shoring up applicant pools that were declining because many students no longer wanted to go to single-sex institutions.

How did you decide which colleges and universities to write about?

NM: In the United States, I focused on the men’s schools that were generally regarded as the influencers, the agenda-setters, the institutions that others looked to, modeled themselves on, and emulated – in other words, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth. As for women’s colleges, Vassar was clearly the most prestigious women’s college that chose to admit men; I included Smith and Wellesley for comparative purposes because both of them had high-level reports in this same period that recommended coeducation, and both of them backed away from admitting men. In the United Kingdom, I wrote about the first three men’s colleges at Cambridge to admit women (in 1972) – Churchill, Clare, and King’s – and the first five at Oxford (in 1974) – Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St. Catherine’s, and Wadham.

It’s important to note that lots of other American institutions went coed in this period – men’s schools as well as women’s schools, colleges as well as universities. But the others were less influential, less precedent-making, than the elite institutions I focused on.

What were the biggest differences between coeducation in men’s colleges and coeducation in women’s colleges?

NM: When a men’s college coeducated, there was no question that it would attract a large number of highly qualified women applicants. When a women’s college coeducated, it was much less clear that there would be a sufficient pool of highly qualified male applicants.

Why did you want to compare American and British universities and colleges?

NM: A very similar phenomenon – the advent of coeducation at very old, very traditional, very elite institutions – was occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The movements of the 1960s affected colleges and universities in both countries. Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were fully aware of what was happening in the United States, and there were some explicit connections between some of them and institutions like Princeton and Yale. There were also similarities in alumni resistance to coeducation. Heads of colleges at Oxford and Cambridge sought to assuage the concerns of their alumni by reminding them of the decision taken many decades earlier to remove the requirement of celibacy for fellows (faculty members) of the colleges – suggesting that coeducation, like married fellows, would soon come to be seen as perfectly normal.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel is a professor of history at Princeton University. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College, overseeing the University’s undergraduate academic program, making her the longest serving dean. Malkiel’s current research centers on the decisions for coeducation at elite colleges and universities in the Unites States, as well as the United Kingdom, from 1969 to the mid 1970s. She is the author of  Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton). Her most recent book is “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation.

New documentary Ivory Tower explores the challenges of higher education in the 21st century

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Andrew Delbanco recently attended Sundance Film Festival where he participated in a screening of Ivory Tower, a new documentary on the spiraling costs of higher education and the impact this has on students and their families. The director of the documentary is Andrew Rossi, who rose to prominence thanks to his earlier work Page One: Inside the New York Times. Delbanco is featured quite a bit in the movie which hopefully will have a greater distribution soon. In the meantime, to bone up on the challenges universities and colleges face, please check out College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.