Union College Founders Day marks 50 years of coeducation

School joined trend in late 1960s
Catharine Bond Hill, former Vassar president, stands with Union College President David R. Harris.
Catharine Bond Hill, former Vassar president, stands with Union College President David R. Harris.

Note: A previous version of this article misattributed a statement from the Encyclopedia of Union College History. The statement came from an entry written by Faye Dudden, not the encylopedia’s editor, Wayne Somers.

Union College counts its history in centuries. The college was formally chartered in 1795 – 224 years ago this month. One of its presidents served for more than 60 years.

And this spring marks 50 years since the Union Board of Trustees approved admitting female students, starting in fall 1970. With that anniversary a few months away, the college turned its focus to the occasion Thursday during its annual Founders Day celebration.

“Union College was founded in 1795 as a college for men,” Union President David Harris said Thursday.

By the late-1960s, though, colleges across the nation were beginning to open their doors to female students – some all-women schools started to admit male students – and Union joined the trend. Harris invited Catharine Bond Hill, former Vassar College president, to deliver the day’s keynote address, during which she reflected on Union’s admission of women and her own years in the first wave of female students at Williams College in Massachusetts.

“It is important to know that admissions isn’t enough,” Hill said of college’s having to adjust to the needs of a changing student body. “Both anticipating as much as possible and learning from experience, making sure the campus supports those admitted is important.”

She highlighted the young activists who agitated for social change in the 1960s and 1970s and noted how women have caught up and, now, outstripped men in educational attainment. Opening colleges to both sexes improved educational attainment across the board, she said, and it opened students to new perspectives and interactions.

“The move to co-education at Union, at Williams, at Yale and across the country, increased the opportunities facing women and changed their lives, and the lives of their families, their communities, and the country, as increased educational attainment is known to do,” Hill said.

Union College was not entirely without women for all those years: they worked as librarians and service staff and made their way into night classes. By the 1920s, the college allowed some women to take night classes or audit graduate courses. In 1958, one woman earned enough credits taking night courses the college granted her a bachelor’s degree.

Some of those pioneer female students urged the school open its doors entirely to women. One such woman wrote in an article in the student newspaper that she supported Union admitting women “so that other girls can also have the good times and get the good education given me,” according to the Encyclopedia of Union College.

In the 1950s and 1960s, more and more women joined the ranks of Union staff, including faculty positions. But college officials continued to resist a move toward making Union coeducational. The pressure to do so, however, mounted throughout the 1960s. A faculty committee in 1967 recommended the college go coeducational, according to the Union history. The following year, Union President Harold Martin established a committee to study the admission of female students. Citing a Princeton survey that showed students were interested in attending coeducational schools and a broader national trend toward opening schools to both sexes, the committee and faculty proposed going coeducational.

In spring 1969, after college officials surveyed students and alumni and found support for coeducation in both groups, the Union Board of Trustees approved admitting female students.

“Thus radical change came to Union,” Faye Dudden wrote in the Union history. “But because it was based on market research it took on the aspect of hardheaded realism.”

The first class of female students, 126 of them, joined a freshmen class of 450 students in 1970. In her address, Hill connected the transition to coeducation to today’s shifting student demographics and efforts to expand access to the country’s elite colleges and universities.

“While women’s college attainment rates have improved, overall higher education attainment has stalled,” Hill said of the modern era. “We know how important education is … and this is true for both men and women.”

She pointed to disparate college outcomes for poor and minority students and urged a deeper commitment to financial aid and supports for students.

“We have more work ahead of us,” Hill said. “Our college campuses need to be welcoming to all students seeking higher education.”

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