Editors’ Note: The following piece is adapted from a speech given at “Paving the Way: Reflections on the Early Years of Coeducation at Notre Dame.” The panel discussion took place on Thursday, November 8, 2012 and was cosponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the Department of American Studies, the Program of Gender Studies and Badin Hall.
I served as Vice President for Student Affairs from 1970 to ’72, and thus I will simply share some reflections on the background for this decision to admit undergraduate women.
As I recall, there were several reasons for it. First, every university continually wants to better itself, that means attracting better faculty and better students, and Notre Dame was attracting students from only one half the human race — males. If Notre Dame were open to women that would greatly increase the overall pool, and the quality of the student body should increase.
Second, high schools were changing. In the past, Notre Dame had been attracting many of its students from single-sex college prep or parish high schools, but parish high schools were now combining into co-educational Catholic high schools and, for financial reasons, more students were attending public high schools. After attending co-educational grade and high schools, a single-sex Notre Dame might be less attractive.
Third, women were taking more and more prominent places in business, the professions, education and politics, and if men were going to be working closely with them for the rest of their lives, they should probably prepare for that in college.
Finally, small Catholic women’s colleges were having difficulties. Without large graduate programs, it was difficult to attract outside government or foundation funding, tuition could be raised only so high, and many excellent Catholic women’s colleges were forced to close their doors. If Catholic education was to remain available to women, schools like Notre Dame and Saint Louis should open their doors to them.
If men and women were to be educated together, union with Saint Mary’s College seemed logical. A co-exchange program had begun in 1965, a limited number of classes could be taken by students on the opposite campus, and the program seemed to be a success. Two hundred students were involved that first year, and more than 2,000 by 1971 — 850 from Saint Mary’s and 1,200 from Notre Dame. The two Speech and Drama Departments merged into one, the Sociology departments began making joint appointments, Saint Mary’s women became Notre Dame cheerleaders, and a shuttle bus service was begun.
Unification talks continued on the highest levels and, on May 15, 1971, the two schools announced jointly that they had agreed to merge by June of 1975, that it would be one co-educational institution by that time. Talks continued throughout the summer and, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” More and more difficulties arose, and by mutual agreement the merger was called off that fall of 1971. Notre Dame was still convinced that men and women should be educated together, and consequently announced that November that it would begin admitting undergraduate women in the fall of 1972.
The decision was made to admit about 325 women that first year, 125 first-year students and 200 transfers, and to increase that number gradually each year thereafter. The reason for this was academic. We thought that when we admitted 200 males, they might break into 50 in Arts and Letters, 50 in science, 50 in business and 50 in engineering, but women might break into 125 Arts and Letters and only 25 in each of the other three. Rather than reaching a point where we had to hire additional Arts and Letters faculty and have Science or Engineering faculty with too few students to teach, we wanted to move slowly and adjust faculty hiring accordingly.
Residence halls were one of my main responsibilities, of course. Morrissey Hall might have been able to house the women since at least some would probably be faculty or staff children and live at home, but I did not want just female rector and one female hall president. After much discussion and investigation, I chose Badin and Walsh, I selected their first hall staffs, including Kathleen Cekanski as rector of Badin Hall and Jane Pitz as assistant rector of Walsh.
Since I left Student Affairs late that summer and returned to full-time teaching, I am anxious to hear firsthand from the rest of the panel how it all worked out.
Father Tom Blantz, CSC, was Vice President for Student Affairs from 1970 to 1972, after which he returned to full-time teaching in the Department of History. He has served at Notre Dame for forty-seven years and is now engaged in research into the history of the University. Fully immersed in the fruits of coeducation, he has lived with the women of McGlinn Hall for eleven years, and with the women of Cavanaugh Hall for six years before that.