Notable Columbians mingled over wine and hors d’oeuvres at University President Lee Bollinger’s house on Tuesday evening to celebrate Columbia College’s 25th year as a coeducational institution.
The reception was attended by what past President of the Alumni Association Gerald Sherwin, CC ’55, called an “all-star team” of administrators and eminent alumni, and featured remarks from Bollinger, University president emeritus Michael Sovern, Dean Austin Quigley, and Vice Chair of the Columbia College Board of Visitors Lisa Landau Carnoy, CC ’89. The speeches reflected on the College’s pivotal 1983 decision and discussed its legacy today.
Columbia College welcomed its first female freshman in the fall of 1983, and was the last of Ivy League institutions to do so. “It’s hard to believe 25 years have gone by, but it’s harder to believe it took us that long to do it,” Sovern said in his speech. To chuckles from the crowd, he recalled his own undergraduate years at the College as a “near monastic existence,” and denounced the male-only policy as a “failure to be sensible.” Quigley echoed these sentiments in his speech, saying, “We’re slow learners.”
Several noted, though, that Columbia’s late transition to coeducation helped it avoid other obstacles that peer institutions faced. For example, the first female students at Princeton faced a lack of women’s health services upon their arrival.
Several women from Columbia’s pioneering classes recalled that the College community was very receptive to the change, though the physical facilities took longer to switch over. Carnoy, who graduated in the College’s third coed class, reflected on her female classmates as “smart go-getters” who quickly assumed leadership positions in the campus community. She remarked, “the only awkward moment was when I lived on the eighth floor of Furnald and there were coed bathrooms with no shower curtains.“
“People were very, very much in favor of it [coeducation],” said Senior Associate Dean of Admissions Diane McCoy, who met with panels of alumni during the period of transition.
Administrators credited coeducation as increasing Columbia’s selectivity and prestige as an institution. Quigley cited application figures, which increased only modestly from 3,500 to 3,600 between 1972 and 1982, but skyrocketed in the decade after women were admitted to 8,000 in 1992 and reached an alltime high of 21,300 this past year.
Robert Pollack, who was appointed Dean of the College a year before coeducation in 1982, called the effects of coeducation a “positive feedback loop,” declaring “coeducation as an example of affirmative action is what we did better than any other thing.”