When the ‘Princesses’ Met the ‘River Rats’
Fifty years ago this fall, the women’s and men’s colleges were merged on the River Campus. By Jayne Denker
Some Rochester undergraduates thought it was the end of the world. Some thought it was a pretty good idea.
It was the fall of 1955, and the College was going coed—again.
“People thought something scandalous was going to happen with men and women on campus together,” says Chita Angeli Duval ’57, ’78W (EdD).
Duval, who went on to make her career as an educational consultant, had a front-row seat for one of the most momentous periods in the history of the College. Entering in the fall of 1953 as a student of the College for Women on the Prince Street campus, she graduated in 1957 from one of Rochester’s first truly coed classes.
In between, she and several hundred other women students moved to the River Campus, when the men’s and women’s colleges, which had existed as separate entities for much of the first half of the 20th century, formally became one College in October 1955.
“The women were smarter, and in a couple of years they had all the top posts.”
—Ed Hajim ’58
As the 50th anniversary of the merger approaches this fall, the thought of anyone being shocked that men and women could coexist on the same campus may seem quaint, but, say members of those first coed classes, the move was a big step, even for a place that had first admitted women in 1900, decades before many private universities.
“Some of the men thought the quality of education would suffer, that some of the classes would be ‘dumbed down’ because ‘women can’t do math,’” says Ed Hajim ’58, now a University trustee who, as a student, was part of a committee assigned to help smooth the transition to a coed campus. “But that was a minority of the men. We actually were afraid that the women would work harder, and there would be more competition that would make it harder to get good grades.”
The concerns raised by coeducation—social, academic, political, and others—had been part of the University’s history since its founding in 1850 in a city that has long played a role in the women’s rights movement. Even after Susan B. Anthony famously pledged her life insurance to help gain women admittance to the University, the two sexes were generally educated in separate programs.
In 1930, when the men moved to the new River Campus on the outskirts of town, the women stayed behind at the Prince Street campus, an arrangement that seemed to work for a while.
Prince Street, say the women who called it home, had its charms. And its population—around 200 women lived on campus—was small, making a tight-knit group of students who were fond of attending morning lectures in pajamas and trench coats and staying up late at night in dorm rooms that housed large numbers of women.
“I lived on the top floor of Cutler,” says Duval. “I was one of the ‘Infamous 15’—there were 15 of us in one room. Another room had five girls, and a third room had 12. At night we’d rattle around in this huge mansion—it was our home. We’d roller skate up and down the halls and play charades every night for hours.”
“It was like one big slumber party the entire year,” says Jane Allyn Piliavin ’58, now the Conway-Bascom Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
But by the middle of the 20th century, University administrators had to admit that maintaining separate campuses was an extravagance Rochester could no longer afford. Arthur May, the late professor emeritus of history, wrote in his A History of the University of Rochester 1850–1962 that studies showed the University would save $250,000 a year (nearly $2 million by today’s standards) if the two campuses merged.
Added to that was the University’s desire to expand its burgeoning graduate-level programs, an effort that, logistically, made more sense if undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty were at one location.
Although others had periodically broached the subject, then president Cornelis de Kiewiet proposed the idea of integrating the two campuses “as soon as he assumed the presidency [in 1951],” May writes.
“People thought something scandalous was going to happen with men and women on campus together.”
—Chita Angeli Duval ’57, ’78W (EdD)
Merging the Colleges also made sense for other reasons, says Lynn Gordon, who holds joint appointments as an associate professor in the College’s history department and in the Warner School. She is the author of Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era.
“Historically, single-sex education is better for women,” Gordon says. “These women are higher achievers entering nontraditional fields, whether they attend a Seven Sisters college or a small, liberal arts college. But at Rochester, the facilities weren’t as good as on the River Campus—the library was substandard, and women had to travel to the River Campus for a wider choice of classes—so it was best for the women that they did combine the campuses.”
As part of the effort, de Kiewiet launched a roughly $10.7 million drive (divided between a capital fund and an annual fund) to help pay for the costs, including building a dormitory for women on the River Campus. (One of the fundraising tools was a booklet called Creative Change for the University of Rochester and its Community illustrated with campus photographs by Ansel Adams.)
But with enough time to prepare—three years passed between the time the faculty of both Colleges approved the merger and the start of classes in the fall of 1955—and some humor, most students began to warm up to the idea.
River Campus: ‘Home’ for 75 Years
“On the 87-acre tract of high, rolling land, formerly occupied by the Oak Hill Country Club on the banks of the Genesee River, the University of Rochester has built anew its College for Men,” reads the 1930 University Bulletin for the men’s college.
Seventy-five years ago after an intense fundraising campaign (with the slogan “Ten Millions in Ten Days”), 47 plans for the new campus, three years of construction, erection of 11 buildings, and the (not quite finished) construction of six fraternity houses (and room for two more that were built later), the River Campus opened as one of the newest campuses “virtually in the country,” says the Bulletin.
In the three quarters of a century since its formal dedication in October 1930, the city has enveloped the campus, the number of buildings has multiplied more than threefold, and the campus has become home not only to the College (with both undergraduate and graduate programs) but also to two graduate schools—one in education and one in business administration.
In 1929, men and women shared the 14-building Prince Street campus, where the statue of Martin B. Anderson, the University’s first president, presided over the “parklike setting.”
In 1930, the men enjoyed a brand-new campus, with buildings made of limestone and Harvard brick “specially selected for color to simulate age,” according to the 1930 Bulletin. The campus was made up of the now-familiar buildings on the quad—Rush Rhees Library was a beacon even then, flanked by the Bausch & Lomb Memorial Physics Building (which also housed the Institute of Applied Optics), Morey (liberal arts), Lattimore (chemistry lab), and Dewey (geology and biology), along with Todd Union (which also housed the dining hall), Strong Auditorium, an engineering building, the Alumni Gymnasium and Palestra, and two dorms—Burton and Crosby.
For women to join the men on the River Campus in 1955, the campus had to expand and change. Todd Union became a coed student union, and a men’s dining hall (now the Frederick Douglass Building) was built near the library. The women enjoyed a modern new dorm, the Women’s Residence Halls, which was made up of four wings—Hollister, Gannett, Anthony, and Morgan—and included the women’s dining hall, Danforth.
The women also had their own gym and pool, built behind their new dorm. The men also had more accommodations—Hoeing and Lovejoy had been built in 1953 and 1954—in addition to Burton and Crosby. Fauver Stadium and the engineering building (Gavett) finally had names. Add the cyclotron building and the statue of Anderson from the Prince Street campus, and the River Campus entered a new age.
It wasn’t only the appearance of the campus that changed.
In 1929, University students numbered just over 1,100 at the Prince Street campus. They paid between $410 and $435 for tuition, room, and board ($4,400–$4,700 in today’s dollars)—the cost of books was estimated at approximately $20 for the year (about $217 by today’s standards)—and chose from majors in the liberal arts, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, chemistry, vital economics, education, nursing, and optics.
One hundred and twenty-nine faculty members—105 men and 24 women taught 654 men and 471 women, 305 of which were freshmen (193 men and 112 women).
The move to the River Campus dropped the number of available majors (vital economics was jettisoned), and costs rose only a bit, as did the number of students, although they were split between the two campuses.
Twenty-five years later, in 1955, 1,000 men and 610 women (including 310 male and 230 female freshmen) shared the 28-building River Campus, and paid between $1,600 and $1,700 for tuition, room, and board (approximately $12,000 today). Student fees rose from $10 in 1930 to $54 in 1955 and, the Bulletin advised, “Engineering students should add $50 for slide rules, drawing instruments, and supplies.”
Two hundred and seventy faculty members (240 men and 30 women) taught courses for 34 majors.
Today, the River Campus has more than 50 buildings and has grown in scope as well as size. In addition to the graduate programs of the College, the campus also is home to the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration and the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
In the College, there are 3,846 undergraduates (2,070 men and 1,776 women, including 522 male and 460 female freshmen) who pay $40,297 for tuition, room, and board. They are taught by 320 faculty (254 men and 66 women) in 59 majors.
Altogether, there are about 5,700 students on campus, out of a total University enrollment of about 8,450 students.
Yet the Rush Rhees Library tower still rises over the Quad. Anderson still stares out as students pass. And alumni still consider the River Campus “home,” even if it isn’t quite how they remember it.
“There’s not nearly enough room to romp around on as there was,” says Donald Steele ’59.
The above-the-fold headline of the April Fool issue of The Campus, the men’s newspaper, blared, “Coadunation Is Imminent!”, with articles announcing that the men would be moved to Prince Street, the state penitentiary would take over the River Campus, and the Genesee River would be rerouted. The edition also included a handy guide on how to identify a woman.
With “Integration” as a theme, the last class of Prince Street freshmen, the Class of ’58, were good-naturedly hazed by having to wear women’s clothing from the waist down and early 20th-century men’s clothing from the waist up. They carried a towel, matches, razors (with no blades), and talcum powder around campus.
On a more practical level, before the campuses merged, the women traveled to the River Campus to attend classes for a day to get acclimated, says Dee Molinari ’58, who retired from SUNY Purchase as assistant vice president for campus and residence life.
“We were picked up in buses and had our classes on the Quad,” she says. “Attendance must have been pretty poor at the various lectures—we never found our way out of the tunnels.”
Hajim, now the chairman and CEO of MLH Capital, says the committee that he served on tried to handle the practical matters of student life.
“We met for about a year, to decide how to merge things like the two newspapers (the women’s Tower Times and the men’s The Campus became the Campus Times), the two student governments, and how to make the radio station coed,” he says. “The men were in the majority, about two or three to one, so all the top spots went to them. But the women were smarter, and in a couple of years they had most of the top posts.”
After the merger, the men lived on the western half of campus, in older dorms like Burton and Crosby, and in the fraternity houses. A new men’s dining hall—now the Frederick Douglass Building—was built closer to the Palestra, and the old men’s dining hall, Todd Union, was turned into a coed student union where students could relax between classes.
“We played a lot of bridge in Todd Union. Anytime anyone had free time, even between classes, there was always a game going on,” says Donald Steele ’59.
Housing for women—in a new building on the eastern edge of campus called the Women’s Residence Halls—proved to be more than a financial hurdle. The start of the 1955‘56 academic year was postponed to October because a carpenters’ strike delayed its completion.
With the new dorm came plenty of new rules. The women had curfews and had to sign in and out. Men were only allowed on the main floor.
“Visitors had to sit in the lounge,” recalls Suzanne Jagel O’Brien ’59, who has observed Rochester college life for decades as associate dean of undergraduate studies and director of the College Center for Academic Support. “If your father came to visit on a Sunday afternoon, the alarm would sound: ‘Man on the hall!’ When you came back from dates, you had until curfew to sit in the lounge. There was all this passion going on, but like the old rule in the movies, you had to keep one foot on the floor at all times. The house mothers—there was one for each wing of the dorm—would walk around and check.”
That’s worlds away from the current incarnation of ‘Susan B.,’ which is coed by hall and in some areas by alternating room. House mothers have been replaced by student resident advisors, and once open dorms now are locked.
“Our security these days is via electronic card swipe with student I.D. cards,” says Logan Hazen, director of Residential Life. “During daytime hours, until midnight, all residence hall students can get into any hall. From midnight until morning, only residents can get into the specific hall they live in.”
With the dorm completed, the 610 women joined the 1,000 men on the River Campus, and entire lifestyles changed.
“We were called the River Rats for good reason,” says John Rathbone ’58. “But after integration, most of the men bothered to shave for class and change their clothes more frequently . . . except for us engineering students. There were very few women in the engineering program back then, and no one to impress.”
For the women, gone were the pajamas and trench coats as classroom attire.
“We always dressed in skirts and pumps or loafers,” says O’Brien. “We never wore slacks—certainly no jeans.”
Women did turn out to be distracting, says Rathbone, a former Navy officer and engineer. “They would knit in class. We couldn’t figure out if they weren’t interested or if they just knew the stuff cold.”
“Oh, we used to knit in lectures all the time,” says Molinari. “We were knitting caps and scarves for our boys [stationed] in Korea. If we were knitting in a class, we just weren’t interested in that lecture. The worst thing was when you’d drop a knitting needle in the middle of class. They were made of metal at the time—they made an awful noise.”
Despite the knitting, the women did give the men quite a bit of academic competition, as many of the men had feared.
“A lot of the women who were admitted to Rochester were valedictorians of their high schools, so we were at a certain intellectual level,” says Duval. “I remember a calculus professor, Dorothy Bernstein, said the women did better than the men in her classes.”
So much for the idea that “women can’t do math.”
“I was delighted that the campuses merged,” says Jerry Gardner ’58, ’65 (Mas), a University trustee and president of C. A. Gardner & Associates, a marketing consulting firm. “It did so much more for the social fabric of the undergraduate experience.”
Adjusting was even easier for the 550 freshmen of the first coed class, the Class of ’59, who made the River Campus their home.
“We took it for what it was,” says Wilma Pinkerton Steele ’59. “We didn’t know any different—didn’t have any previous experience to compare it to.”
Attitudes about education—for women and for men—have changed considerably in the past 50 years, say members of the merger classes.
“We were a very compliant group, as was society at the time,” Duval says, with a “culture warp of the ’50s” affecting the women. Women weren’t ‘supposed to’ go to college. Of those who did, quite a few got married right after graduation. A lot of the women taught—there weren’t that many career options—but then quit working to raise children.”
“You could be academically serious,” O’Brien says. “But of course you also had that ‘Mrs.’ degree on your mind. Being ‘pinned’—going steady—while you were in school was a big deal.”
Wilma Steele, one of those female students who did become a teacher (now retired), says women also were encouraged to be career-minded individuals.
“In our senior year, a few of us were invited to go before the Board of Trustees to ‘defend our class,’” she says. “I think they were concerned that we weren’t reaching our full potential. The trustees thought we were overly concerned with our own security and that we weren’t reaching out to do new things—but we did—and that we weren’t going far and wide for jobs—but we did.”
And the class was integrated in more ways than one, she says. For example, she married Donald Steele ’59.
“Our class was so close, and we stayed close,” she says. “A lot of us married within our class and have stayed married all these years.”
Whether the men and women of the classes of the ’50s found husbands and wives on campus or not, the most important thing was that they complemented one another.
“Women on the River Campus made it a happier, more balanced place,” says Hajim. “The campus became whole.”
Jayne Denker is associate editor of Rochester Review.