This story is part of a special issue examining the Barnard-Columbia relationship, 30 years after Columbia College decided to go coed and Barnard decided not to merge with Columbia. Check out the rest of the issue here.
'The whole culture had shifted'
'The place belonged to them'
Columbia administrators took several steps to accommodate the influx of female students. English professor Michael Rosenthal, Columbia's associate dean of students from 1972 to 1989, said that administrators formed a coeducation planning committee and hired a “coeducation coordinator.”
The University's goal, Rosenthal said, was to make sure that women would be treated as “fully-fledged Columbia College students.”
“We were all sensitive to the fact that we were doing something different and new and we had to make sure that women were comfortable,” he said.
Administrators found that the college's new needs were largely facilities and resources, such as women's bathrooms, women's health services, and counseling services geared to female students.
“I think it was an adjustment,” Kass said. “There wasn't any sense of discomfort. It just felt like there were things that still needed to be changed.”
According to McCaughey, the addition of female students significantly increased the academic strength of the Columbia College student body. During the first few years of coeducation, he said, there were more women than men in the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and women tended to dominate the top of their class.
Ferrante recalled hearing murmurs behind her during a 1980s graduation ceremony, while students were receiving their diplomas. As woman after woman received departments' highest awards, Ferrante said, one man turned to his neighbor and whispered, “What's wrong with the men in this class?”
“The women at Columbia sort of almost immediately found this to be their home,” Lehecka said, noting that in the first coed class, the class president, the valedictorian, and the salutatorian were all female. “They came here and acted like the place belonged to them.”
The admission of women, Ferrante added, was also beneficial to Columbia College men.
“There was a rather male seminary aspect, particularly to things in the Core Curriculum,” Ferrante said. “These men were learning to confront women—the other.”
'We had done it right'
Still, Columbia College could not completely change its history as an almost exclusively male institution—at least not at first.
Kass noted that there were relatively few female professors during her time at Columbia, and she struggled to remember more than one female professor in four years.
“We wish we had had mentors,” Kass said.
Laura Brumberg, CC '87, does not think she noticed the lack of female role mole models at the time. But in retrospect, she said, the realization has affected her view of her Columbia experience.
“Back then I just adapted and took some classes at Barnard,” she said. “But when I think about it now, that might have been another step they could have taken when they went coed, to bring in some female professors.”
The lack of female alumni was also striking.
“When I was graduating—or even at the end of my sophomore year, when I went to the alumni office—there was nobody to talk to,” Kass said.
But this shortage of female alumni did not last long—Columbia College's first coed graduating class was 40 percent women, and that percentage has grown steadily over the years. Women made up the majority of a graduating class for the first time in 1994.
Biology professor Robert Pollack, Columbia College's dean from 1982 to 1989, noted that Columbia's acceptance rate decreased drastically during the first few years of coeducation. Rosenthal said that the numbers “made clear that women were eager to come to Columbia, and that in the admissions process, we had done it right.”
For some alumni, the fact that Columbia was not always coed is almost unimaginable.
“It is sort of shocking that it took so long, especially in New York,” Kraham said. “The idea that there are women today who couldn't have gone to Columbia is sort of a marvel.”
Madina Toure contributed reporting.
Check out the rest of the coeducation special issue here.