Alumni Council Column: The First Co-Ed Class at Colgate

Jane Najarian Porter, Class of 1974

Like today, Colgate in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a time of unrest, with student sit-ins. The norms were breaking down, and when women arrived in the fall of ’70, the pace of change hastened.

President Nixon was in his first term.

First-year men had draft numbers for Vietnam. The Kent State shootings of that spring were fresh in our minds. Civil Rights demonstrations had been followed by rioting and gave rise to The Black Power Movement. 

Women’s Liberation was in its infancy. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, same sex campuses went co-ed all over the nation. “Women’s Lib” was heavily debated by women and men. To us, being “liberated” meant being free from

traditional expectations and roles.  

The Class of 1974 was tasked with the experiment. How do we create change in a world of male traditions? How do we integrate women into campus facilities and academics? Those were the critical questions.

You see, when we arrived, Colgate had been educating men for 150 years. But this well-entrenched system was unhealthily keeping men isolated and having only a male point of view. The university wanted to integrate co-education with the least possible stress to the men, women and systems.   

This was a challenge because although many administrators were excited about co-education, they didn’t know where to begin. They had never taught women before. What courses did the women want? What other things did they want and need? Should there be more women faculty?  Did the gym need to be redesigned?  

During the first week of school, President Thomas Bartlett convened the first-year women.  He asked us to tell him what we needed to make our experience more successful.  It was an empowering moment. Dr. Bartlett hired Karen Blank as Dean of Freshman, which was a great decision.  We felt we had someone to talk to about our problems. Having Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pittman speak at the first lecture was also a sign that they meant to change the campus culture. 

Both the men and women in our class spent their college careers trying to balance tradition with change. We tried to define the issues, then propose solutions. We realized very quickly that with each incoming co-ed class, the situation was changing more rapidly than we thought. That’s because every class had its own ideas of what was acceptable and what was not. We learned that trying to define co-education for Colgate was not a finite set of themes but an ongoing process. You can only make a decision with the information in front of you because you can’t know the future.  That is why you have to be fluid, you have to be open to change. 

I think if you ask any woman who graduated in the early years, she will tell you that most professors treated us with respect and equality in the classroom. I never felt a sense of discrimination or favoritism. However, some of my classmates encountered a few professors who did not want co-education and made it clear that women were not welcome in their classrooms. It was unfortunate that some women had to put up with negative comments to get a great education.

Colgate’s long tradition of having first-years eat together in the Hall of Presidents gave us the opportunity to get to know our classmates. We walked up and down the hill together three times a day.  Because one person checked our meal tickets, the line formed down the staircase.  Waiting in line was a social event, a time when you met more of your peers. The other common experience was a year of Philosophy and Religion. It was mandatory for all first-years. We studied together and stressed out trying to understand Plato and Kant. It was a rite of passage. 

Campus life in 1970 straddled tradition and experimentation. Socially, men asked women out on dates.  A date might be a game, a movie, a concert, a beer at The Pub on campus, studying at Case Library or being invited to dinner.  It sounds so quaint, but I think the old roles put less stress on us because the rules of dating were defined. By the time we were seniors, social roles began to flip. Women began to ask men out on dates. There were no sororities, which I think brought the women in our class closer. We played intramurals because Title IX did not exist. 

The drinking age was 18. People smoked pot and there was some LSD. We had vinyl records played on phonographs, manual typewriters, working fireplaces in Andrews and firewood.  Everyone had housekeeping service twice a week.    An upperclassman grilled hamburgers outside our windows from 8-10 p.m. because the Coop was not open in the evening.   

Looking back, I can see the tug-of-war between the forces of tradition and Women’s Liberation. There was a sense of radical politics in the air.  Both men and women were trying to grapple with the ideas that the Women’s Movement posed. Typical of youth, we wanted to make changes fast. But we were slowed down by the process of debate and consideration by the ones in charge. I don’t think that has changed very much.  

I see the fullness that co-education brings to Colgate. It continues to enrich my life as I engage with the university. I love the fact that Colgate provides an outstanding education for both men and women and that courses have evolved through the decades to reflect the changing times. I hope that current students will look back at their time here and let us know what they have learned.