Convocation 2011: Voices from Bowdoin's Past

Story posted August 31, 2011

"Voices from Bowdoin's Past"
Tim Foster
Dean of Student Affairs

Bowdoin College's 210th Convocation was held Wednesday, August 31, 2011, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following is the text of Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster's reading.

Tim Foster Convo2011200.jpg
Tim Foster

This year at Bowdoin, we recognize two significant milestones: the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War and the 40th anniversary of coeducation at our College.

On the surface, these events have nothing in common other than dates on a calendar. But a closer look reveals an intriguing connection.

Students of the Civil War know Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain — Bowdoin Class of 1852 and hero at Gettysburg — who would go on to serve four terms as Maine governor and a dozen years as president of Bowdoin.

What you may not know is that it was Chamberlain who first raised the idea of coeducation at Bowdoin in his inaugural address delivered in 1871:

"Women too should have part in this high calling," said Chamberlain. "Because in this sphere of things her 'rights,' her capacities, her offices, her destiny, are equal to those of man. She is Heaven, appointed teacher of man, his guide, his better soul."

Chamberlain's view on the subject fell about as flat as his insistence some years later that all Bowdoin students take part in military drill out on the Quad.

It was precisely another 100 years before Bowdoin admitted women.

In the summer of 1967, then President Coles formed a committee with a mandate to explore all aspects of campus life, including the possibility of coeducation.

Its work generated a great deal of speculation and anticipation, including this from the Bowdoin Orient:

At their annual meeting in June, Bowdoin’s Governing Boards will deal with a report that, if implemented, will change the essential nature of the college.

Coeducation, Bowdoin’s mass erotic fantasy, will be presented in precise terms of why, how, and how much. And, hopefully, when.

Five months later, members of the Committee presented the Pierce Report which stated:

We believe that some form of coeducation is one of the most pressing needs of the College and the step best calculated to give new vitality to the entire Bowdoin community.

Bowdoin can no longer ignore the positive advantages to be derived from including women in the academic community…

A modern college of distinction such as Bowdoin has an educational obligation to the other half, whose members are just as much entitled to, and as interested in, a superior education as are their brothers.

The report went on:

Today’s college undergraduate lives in a time when the traditional differentiation between the sexes is rapidly being swept away.

Women are now regarded as men’s equals in the capacity for intellectual achievement in fields earlier thought of as men’s exclusive preserve.


Women and men mingle increasingly in the business and professional world of which the Bowdoin undergraduate seeks to become a part…

It comes down to this:  If Bowdoin does not soon find a way to adopt coeducation in some form while practically all of its competitors do Bowdoin will simply not attract the best students and the best faculty.

Bowdoin must face these facts if it is to continue to say that the best years of the College lie ahead.

And the authors of the Pierce Report knew there was another sensible reason to change the status quo:

The typical Bowdoin undergraduate’s contacts with women are confined largely to weekend forays and occasional house parties.

Such confinement seriously distorts, at a particularly impressionable stage of life, many a Bowdoin man’s conception of what a young woman is and what the character of male-female contacts ought to be.

In addition to increased enrollment in the humanities and fine arts — classes supposedly of more interest to women — there was also a sense that social life at Bowdoin would improve for the better.

The Pierce Report put it this way:

[Coeducation] would encourage more natural and regular social relationships with women. It would undoubtedly mitigate the present crudities in fraternity social mores.

At present many members of the faculty consider some underclass social activities little less than barbaric. The addition of women would undoubtedly have a “civilizing” effect.

Hmmmm…  Retrospective survey says?!? Talk about pressure on these women!

On September 25, 1970, the Governing Boards voted in favor of coeducation.

The very next day, Susan D. Jacobsen — a transfer student from Connecticut College — applied for admission. The following fall, 66 women arrived on a campus dominated by nearly 1,000 men.

At Commencement that year, Susan Jacobsen became the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree at Bowdoin and the first woman to deliver a Commencement address:

"Hooray," she shouted. "Raise the flag; strike the drums; this year is a cause for celebration! The college has recognized its obligations as an institute of higher learning to provide an equal opportunity for the dynamic feminine counterpart of society."

Predictably, not everyone was happy. One grumpy reader stated in a Bowdoin Orient poll taken the following fall:

"Diverted sexual energy made Bowdoin what it was."

Another insisted:

“Face up to reality. Bowdoin will never resemble anything real; do not attempt to make real something that thrives on its potential as an escape.”

Today — 40 years later — we look back on this landmark decision with gratitude for those who had the courage and the foresight to see the future, and especially for those pioneering women who made coeducation at Bowdoin a reality.

When Susan Jacobsen was five years old, she told her father — a member of the Class of 1940 — that she was going to Bowdoin. Her dad explained that the College was all male, but Susan was undeterred. She bet him a lollipop that she would one day go to his college.

On May 28, 2011, Bowdoin graduated 230 women and 212 men. No lollipops necessary.

Thank you for listening.

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