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Past as Prologue

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Find out what Colby-Sawyer alumni have been up to since graduation.

Currents: past as prologue

Full Circle: How Colby-Sawyer Returned to its Co-ed Roots

By Amber Cronin '11

It is hard to imagine Colby-Sawyer without the presence of men, but that was the reality for the college from 1928 until 1990. During that time, Colby-Sawyer was an all-women's liberal arts institution, but in 1989, a task force was formed to gather information about the possibility of returning to the school's co-educational roots.

Colby-Sawyer has a long history of alternating between single-sex and co-education, but it began as the New London Academy on July 4, 1837, when it was granted a charter by the General Court of New Hampshire. In the early summer of 1838, though rganized as a school for girls, the school welcomed its first class of 26 girls and one boy.

For the second term, starting in September 1838, a “Male Department” was formed and 54 “gentlemen” enrolled along with 65 “ladies.”

In 1853, with the academy on the brink of extinction, the New Hampshire Baptist Convention took over the New London Seminary Academy and made it the official Baptist Academy for the state at the request of Anthony Colby and Pastor Ebenezer Dodge. The following year, after reorganization, the school admitted male and female students to the New London Literary and Scientific Institute. By 1875, there are two dedicated housing units for both girls and boys.

In 1924, a committee had been chosen to make recommendations regarding a proposal to make Colby a school for boys, but such a recommendation never came. “The official attitude of the Board of Education of the Northern Baptist Convention was favorable to a school for girls only,” according to The First Century of Colby. In 1927, with facilities lagging behind those for boys and a corresponding decline in attendance, then President H. Leslie Sawyer urged that the Colby Academy be made a junior college for girls.

In 1928, after nearly a century as a secondary school, the trustees of Colby Academy unanimously voted to transform the academy into a junior college and preparatory school for young women. Two years later, 14 young women received the first associate degrees conferred by Colby School for Girls. In 1933, by an act of the New Hampshire Legislature, Colby School for Girls changed to Colby Junior College for Women.

In 1943, in an amendment to the College Charter, the New Hampshire General Court granted Colby Junior College the privilege of "granting all degrees ordinarily conferred by senior colleges." By 1973, the college was offering women two-, three-, and four-year degree options. In 1975, the Board of Trustees voted on Colby-Sawyer College the new name for the College.

Sixty years after closing the door to male students, President Peggy A. Stock and the trustees of Colby-Sawyer looked at forming a task force to explore ideas for improving the college's competitive advantages and to increase enrollment, which was on a steady decline. Some options explored by the task force included making Colby-Sawyer a senior college for retired citizens, opening up the school to adult education, and returning the school to its roots by going co-educational.

The Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees approved both the concept and membership of a strategic planning task force to develop, review, and recommend ways to ensure the viability of the college on Dec. 9, 1988. The task force, comprised of alumnae, trustees and community members, included Loretta Barnett, Anne Winton Black '73, '75, Peter Danforth, Tony Iadarola, Jack Jensen, Joyce Kollington, Michael McMahon, Kenneth Miller and Natalie Rooke.

The task force explored possible issues that could arise regarding the acceptance of men into Colby-Sawyer, among them the effect on the curriculum and the cost of implementation. The task force also faced the issue of the current student population, some of whom strongly disagreed with the idea of allowing men to enter the college.

“The young women said they came to the college because it was Colby-Sawyer - and it no longer will be Colby-Sawyer if men are allowed acceptance,” said one concerned parent.

On Thursday, March 17, 1989, 100 students staged a sit-in protest against the idea of the admission of men at Colby-Sawyer. The women gathered in the administration building, sitting on the floors and singing, “I am woman.”

In response to the students' outrage, President Stock and task force Chairman Peter Danforth sent letters to community members, alumnae, and the parents of current and prospective students in order to get their opinions on the school's transformation. They replied with a flood of letters expressing many opinions on the issue. Some community members and alumnae expressed mixed opinions on the idea, but most were in favor of the move to co-education if it would preserve the college for future generations. Many of parents and students, however, felt that the school needed to maintain its status as an all-women's college to protect the history of the school.

Although many students were against the idea, some agreed with President Stock and the task force. One member of the freshmen class said, “I don't care. There won't be that many men anyway. There are lots of guys here on the weekend, and they weren't complaining then.” Another student said, “Having men on campus will make class discussions a lot better; they offer a different opinion and will help make the conversations better.”

The main source of the students' protest stemmed from the fact that they did not have a say in the task force's plan to go co-ed. Once they were consulted, they were more accepting of the idea of male classmates. The campus video news magazine, “Colby-Sawyer Insights,” predicted that the transformation from an all-women's college to a co-educational institution would be a “mere ripple in campus life.”

When asked by “Colby-Sawyer Insights” what she thought of the issue, President Stock said, “It is undoubtedly the best decision for the college. It will provide a critical mass and the resources to do things that we simply haven't had, and that is very different from survival. I am not looking at this year or next year, I'm looking ten years down the road. The move to co-education will preserve the school for future generations of men and women.”

By Dec. 15, 1989, Admissions had received 191 applications, 152 of whom were women and 29 were men, which was two and a half times more applications than any December from the previous five years. Colby-Sawyer's graduating class of 1994 consisted of 212 students, 68 of whom were men.

Currently, there are 330 men on campus and 622 women. The student protests and demonstrations have become distant memories, replaced by images of the successes of the men's sports teams and the fall football games on the quad. For most female students, it is probably impossible to imagine their college experience without the presence of men, but what they do not realize is the struggle that took place before men could finally, for the first time in the history of New London, gain their college education here on top of the hill.

Amber Cronin works in College Communications at Colby-Sawyer College.