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Scranton Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Coeducation

Scranton Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Coeducation

A Look Back at the University’s ‘New Day’

It’s been more than 40 years since the Valentine’s Day card arrived at the home of Mary Ellen Taggart Ford ’76, and yet the simple gesture still pulls on her heartstrings.

The card – “the kind you used to get in the big multi-packs,” Ford recalls – wasn’t from a single admirer, but rather a university full of them. The sender was The University of Scranton’s Student Government Association, and the cards were delivered to female high school students accepted into the institution’s Class of 1976. It would be the University’s first coed class with women living on campus.

“The card said something like, ‘Can’t wait to meet you in September,’” says Ford. “I remember thinking, ‘How can you not like a place that sent you a valentine?’” 1

Fifty-eight female students, including Ford, arrived on Scranton’s campus in September 1972, taking residence in the college’s lone female dormitory, Fitch Hall. (A total of 165 women were enrolled in the college that fall, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the entire student body.) In October 1971, less than a year before, the University made headlines announcing its move to coeducation – in hindsight an inevitable transition as Scranton looked to secure its future.

Rev. Bernard R. McIlhenny, S.J., explains it’s important to put this time period at Scranton in perspective. “The University then wasn’t the University we see today,” says the former longtime director of admissions.

Leading up to the decision, applications were declining, and so too was Scranton’s all-male student body. Plus, fellow Jesuit universities and competitor schools had mostly integrated women by then.

These factors facilitated the arrival of women on campus, an event The Aquinas trumpeted as “Coeducation: Beginning of a New Day” in its first issue of fall 1972.

Today, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University’s “New Day.”

An Obvious Choice

In 1972, having female students on campus wasn’t an entirely new concept for the University. To be honest, women were already here.

The Evening College – later the Dexter Hanley College – went coed in 1937, and the Graduate School had admitted women from its inception in 1950. But the College of Arts and Sciences, the only undergraduate day college at the time, enrolled only men. (Though females in the Evening College were allowed to attend classes during the day.)

When Rev. Dexter Hanley, S.J., then the University’s president, announced the decision to go coed in fall 1971, all 27 fellow Jesuit institutions were already accepting women or had announced their intent to go coed. 2

While Father Hanley was said to favor the integration – as did most of the faculty and staff 3 – he did attempt a bold one-year joint venture with Marywood University prior to the announcement. The experiment was called the Cooperative Program and it allowed students from the two Scranton colleges to enroll in courses at either institution.

“But that really never got off the ground,” says Father McIlhenny. “I don’t think either faculty wanted to lose their identity.”

The arrival of women on campus was swift as female commuter students were welcomed in spring 1972 – four months after the University coeducation announcement – and on-campus housing opened to females the following fall.

There was a reason for promptness, explains William Parente, Ph.D., professor of political science, who was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at that time. The University’s current business model wasn’t successful. 

“Father Hanley and others felt we needed to go coed to help us sustain ourselves economically,” Dr. Parente recalls. “They didn’t think we could continue as an all-male school with virtually all other schools going coed.”

“To me, this decision was something that had to be,” recalls Father McIlhenny. “In my mind, looking at it from an admissions and recruiting point of view, there was no question that we had to go coed.”

A Royal Welcome

Upon their arrival in fall 1972, every female student found a rose placed in her dorm room. It was one of many acts of kindness to make them feel at home, the women remember.

Ford recalls the campus being a buzz on move-in day, with a slew of upperclassmen helping carry her personal affects to her dorm and getting her settled. “People were so friendly, and so helpful, it got me over my anxiousness of being there by myself,” she says.

Ford was the first person in her family to go to college – a common trait amongst her classmates. Add in the fact she was far from home, with no friends and meeting her roommate for the first time, it’s little wonder she was apprehensive that day.

Carolyn Schumacher Esgro ’76, G’81 recalls feeling as if the female students – their safety and happiness – were a “high priority” to the faculty, staff and administrators.

“Everyone seemed to want to make sure we were happy, and that we had what we needed. There weren’t many of us, you know,” says Esgro.

Recently renovated for the female students, Fitch Hall housed 58 women that fall and had a live-in house mom, Mrs. Phillips Boscha, look after the women. Measures were taken to ensure their security, including instituting a curfew and locking the dorm throughout the day. Early in the semester students weren’t given keys, which was a definite point of contention.

If the circling security guard wasn’t around to allow the female students access to the residence hall, the women had to become resourceful.

“If you were locked out, you’d throw stones at your window and your roommate would come down and let you in,” laughs Ford.

Karen Pennington, Ph.D. ’76, G’83, a current member of the University’s Board of Trustees, fondly remembers leading a group to the Dean of Students’ office, protesting the locked doors. (The men’s dorms weren’t locked, she points out.) To quell the protest, women were eventually given keys.

Whether it was the few number of women on campus, or their single residence, members of the Class of 1976 bonded quickly. 4

“What I remember from our first year was meeting lifelong friends and the great times we shared there,” says Dr. Pennington, who later served as associate dean of students at the University in the 1980s. “Those are still people who are my friends today.”

Even if you weren’t best friends with everyone, explains Ford, you knew everyone. “You knew the name of every person in your hall,” she says. “To this day, I can probably name three-quarters of them. I don’t know if that happened at other schools.”

A Different Campus, Same University

Today’s students wouldn’t recognize the campus as it was in 1972. At least that’s the strong sentiment of Dr. Pennington and many of her fellow classmates.

With Linden Street open to traffic, there was no present day Commons to speak of. The library was located in Alumni Memorial Hall. In place of Weinberg Memorial Library was an open field. Plus, the place to socialize as an undergraduate was the Long Beach, a patch of grass where the Byron Recreation Complex stands today, or Nevils Beach, another grassy strip between dorms.

Whether it was sun tanning, playing softball or “traying” – sledding on a cafeteria tray in the snow – Scranton students took advantage of whatever open space they had available to them, recalls Esgro.

The women remember a definite Jesuit presence on campus, with priests living nearby, teaching a lot of classes or hosting masses in dorms – including the popular 11 p.m. Sunday mass.

Esgro recalls Rev. John J. Fitzpatrick, S.J., director of spiritual life, who lived in Nevils Hall with his dog, being buddies with all students, and Rev. Ed Gannon, S.J., philosophy professor affectionately gaining the nickname “Uncle E.G.”

“I think the Jesuit influence was a big part in creating that sense of community. They were always around,” Esgro says.

Ellen Casey, Ph.D., professor emerita of English, was one of the few female professors on campus in the 1970s and was “somebody a lot of the women looked to as a mentor,” Ford says. “She and her husband attended everything, so people really got to know her.” 5

As the women assimilated into the community at Scranton, they came to understand a few of the drawbacks of being the first females on campus. Rule No.1: Always visit the cafeteria in groups.

“You never went to the cafeteria alone,” Dr. Pennington recalls. “Because it could be just you and 900 men. That could be a little daunting.”

During the first year it wasn’t uncommon to be the only woman in a classroom. But Ford never remembers feeling uncomfortable.

“In class, if you were the only female, your study group was you and four guys, but that was OK,” she says. “You were all friends. It was a good atmosphere.”

It was the 1970s

Like many other colleges at the time, Scranton was influenced by the strife felt across the country.

With the Vietnam War under way, and other crises in the world, the campus had an energy, recalls Dr. Pennington, who vividly remembers sitting in the Fitch Hall lounge watching the draft lottery. “That whole vibe of the 1970s … we were affected by it,” she says.

While Dr. Parente maintains the University was far from “radical,” the students did voice their opinions with a handful of sit-ins and candlelight vigils. And there was the spirited demonstration demanding the closure of Linden Street after a student was struck by a vehicle. 6

“It was a very active, very involved campus,” Ford explains. “I wouldn’t categorize it as political, but the students were very passionate. They were willing to speak up for things that they thought were inappropriate.”

Maintaining What’s Important

While female students arrived in 1972, Father McIlhenny estimates it wasn’t until the 1980s the effects of the University’s decision were fully felt.

Following the integration of women on campus, Scranton was in a state of flux as the curriculum underwent changes, a handful of programs were brought on board, and the number of female faculty members increased significantly.

Coinciding with the arrival of women, the University pushed enrollment, expanding the student body far beyond its previous class sizes. In 1970, the University enrolled 1,345 students, but within 12 years the numbers had increased to 4,000. 7

Despite the tremendous change, Father McIlhenny says the University maintained one of its most valuable assets: its identity.

“I always stressed this, as we grew, it was very important that we didn’t lose what we started out to gain – that was a personal, direct approach toward education,” he says. “That’s something, thank God, that I think we’ve kept.”

For the women from the Class of 1976, the University’s identity was rooted not only in its education, but also in its sense of community – evident from the first moment they stepped on campus and present 40 years later.

“What I gained from Scranton was that total sense of community, the sense of belonging with people who shared similar values and choices,” Esgro says. “I felt like I was making friendships that would last forever – and they did. I can’t impress upon you the feeling of community that I felt there.”

Looking back all these years later, the valentine Ford received four decades ago seemed to deliver on its promise.

“Receiving that card, that’s what made me think that this school would be OK,” Ford recalls. “It just made it personal. It made you feel like you were going to connect with the other students there. And sure enough, that’s what happened.”

Notes:

1 Karen Pennington, Ph.D.’76, G’83, fondly remembers the Scranton valentine arriving at her house in Darby, just outside Philadelphia. “Looking back, it seems like a sexist thing now, but it was so sweet that they sent Valentine’s Day cards to us at home,” she says.

2 The University’s decision to go coed wasn’t an unprecedented change during this time. St. Joseph’s University and Loyola University Maryland became coeducational in 1971, and Holy Cross announced its decision to go coed just prior to the University’s. In fact, Scranton enrolled females in spring 1972, a semester before Holy Cross opened its doors to women.

3 William Parente, Ph.D., then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explains the institutions’ faculty and staff were quite open to the idea – with few dissenting voters. “It didn’t strike me – or others – as a big deal,” Dr. Parente recalls. “Most of our faculty had come from graduate or undergraduate institutions that were coed. The only issue was would the local community tolerate it.”

4 That’s not to say the dorm life didn’t have its hiccups. Dr. Pennington and Ford both recall a massive room swap during the first or second week of the semester. They estimate at least a third of the female students changed roommates. “It was difficult because we were a really diverse group, but you had no choice who your roommates were,” Dr. Pennington says. “We switched rooms because people had started meeting each other and learning who were similar.” Ford fondly remembers meeting her roommate Deborah Quarry Kasten ’76 during the swap, and they remain friends to this day.

5 When Dr. Casey arrived at Scranton in 1969, she was one of just three female faculty members at the all-male institution. Two years later, she was the only female faculty member on campus. It was widely acknowledged that Dr. Casey worked tirelessly to help integrate the campus community during this time and throughout her four decades at Scranton.

6 Rosemary Fox Broderick ’76, G’80, G’89 recalls a conversation she had with Rev. John Quinn, S.J., an English professor, expressing her concerns about the country’s social injustices and her inability to accept them. She remembers Rev. Quinn calmly replied, “No one ever said that you have to accept these injustices, Rosemary. Don’t accept them. Just learn to tolerate them and do something about it.” Recalls Broderick, “At that moment, a heavy weight was lifted from my shoulders.”

7 Father McIlhenny recalls that by the late 1960s, the admissions process had become a buyers’ market and colleges had to be proactive in recruiting students. Plus, with the addition of female students, the University was entering a new era of admissions. One of Father McIlhenny’s earliest realizations between recruiting male students to female students he shared with The Aquinas in 1972. “A boy is satisfied to know that he’s accepted in a certain field. You know, the ‘I’ll see you in September’ idea. But the girls want to know specific things, right down to the color of the drapes. They do the same with their programs; they’ll delve into the courses much more than boys.”

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