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The Founding of Kirkland College: a chapter of history

March 23, 2012

An excerpt from:  On The Hill: A Bicentennial History of Hamilton College, 1812-2012, by Maurice Isserman


Samuel F. Babbitt, Fall 2011 at Gamm Theater, R.I.

In Limited Engagement, his 2006 memoir/institutional history of Kirkland College, Samuel Fisher Babbitt referred to himself as the first, last and only president of the women’s college that would share the Hill with Hamilton from 1968 to 1978. His book is the essential starting point for understanding the unlikely saga of the rise and fall of Kirkland College.2 Babbitt began Limited Engagement explaining the unintended consequences of a financial windfall that came Hamilton’s way in 1961. The Ford Foundation presented Hamilton with a $100,000 challenge grant from its Special Program in Education, raised the next year to a $2 million grant, the latter the largest single gift the College had ever received. The money came with some strings attached, however. Hamilton would have to raise substantial matching donations throughout the next several years (spurring the growth of a professional development office and staff). And it would have to engage in something called “long-range planning” — an esoteric concept for a small college like Hamilton at the time. In Babbitt’s summary of the impact of the Ford Foundation grant:

[T]o a small group of active and influential men associated with the college, [it] seemed to offer a chance to make real strides towards a number of goals: for example, the elusive and perennial goal of permanent fiscal stability, the desire for greater public recognition, and a potential solution to social isolation and curricular sclerosis.

The trustees established an Ad Hoc Long Range Planning Committee under the chairmanship of the College’s vice president Richard W. Couper to meet the Ford Foundation grant requirements, while President McEwen appointed a similar faculty committee chaired by Professor of History David Ellis.

These were heady times in higher education circles. Spurred by national prosperity as well as Cold War anxieties of falling behind the Soviets, generous federal subsidies had been flowing to higher education since the 1950s for bricks and mortar, student scholarships and support for faculty research, especially in the sciences. In New York, the state legislature increased funding for Regents scholarships while the New York State Dormitory Authority, originally established to finance construction at public universities in the state, extended its activities to include bond issues for construction at private colleges and universities. Private funding sources such as the Ford Foundation were flush with cash in the booming economy and eager to underwrite exciting innovations in higher education. All of which, plus the looming enrollments of the postwar baby boomers (the first of whom would turn 18 in 1963), led Hamilton’s planners to think big, as was evident in what became known as the “Cluster Plan.”

Planning for the new women’s college begins in earnest in the spring of 1964.
Photo courtesy of Hamilton College Archives

The Long Range Planning Committee’s ambitious report, delivered to the trustees early in 1962, called for the creation of a group of coordinate colleges on the Hill. The proposal was modeled on the Claremont system, a consortium of undergraduate and graduate schools in Southern California founded in the 1920s around already-existing Pomona College. The Long Range Planning Committee envisioned Hamilton playing a comparable role at the center of its own cluster. The newly founded coordinate institutions would each have separate names, administrations, boards of trustees, faculty, dormitories and dining halls, as well as distinctive curriculums, but linked to Hamilton by sharing the facilities already or soon to be available on the Hill, including the College’s library, gymnasium, infirmary, student center and the Chapel. Students at the coordinate colleges would be able to cross-register for courses at the other campuses.

The beauty of the plan, as a political document, was that it managed to appeal simultaneously to the College’s traditionalists and its reformers. Essentially, Hamilton would remain unchanged, a small men’s college with its own curriculum and customs left intact. At the same time, new educational ventures would be taking root on the Hill, adding luster to Hamilton’s national reputation and complementing its course offerings. Some of the ideas for coordinate institutions included an engineering school, a medical school and a business school. But, in the end, the planners decided the best place to start would be with an undergraduate college for women. As the Long Range Planning Committee concluded, “A women’s college would strengthen Hamilton where it is weakest — a proper social environment — [but] disturb it least as far as curricular matters are concerned.” On January 25, 1964, the trustees gave the go-ahead for the creation of a coordinate women’s college on the Hill.

And thus was born the idea of Kirkland College (so named a year later by decision of the Hamilton trustees) — separate, sisterly, non-disturbing Kirkland College, the ideal feminine helpmate to older, wiser, masculine Hamilton — and, as things turned out, a case study in the law of unintended consequences.

Kirkland would be separate but theoretically equal, except in financial matters. The new college would begin its existence deeply in debt to Hamilton, which would be lending it start-up funds and subsidizing its income in the first few years. Hamilton would also retain ultimate control of the land on which Kirkland’s buildings were constructed. In the go-go years of the prosperous 1960s, these disadvantages seemed inconsequential — surely once the new college was up and running, it would soon be able to pay its own way. But not all the long-range planners proved oblivious to the long-range implications of Kirkland’s debtor status. When news of the recommendation to create a women’s college first circulated on campus in the spring of 1963, a report in The Spectator noted that Long Range Planning Committee member and Physics Professor Jim Ring “stressed that he felt a coordinate college should not be founded unless it could be financially independent of Hamilton.”

Not all Hamilton students were enthusiastic about the prospect of young women moving into the immediate neighborhood. The senior honorary society Pentagon condemned the idea out of hand, arguing that women in such close proximity would undermine Hamilton’s ability to groom “an intellectual elite” because “the possibility of social life in the middle of the week would distract many students from their studies.” The Spectator’s editors, on the other hand, thought it an idea worth trying. “Everyone is aware” of the social problems at Hamilton, they wrote in March 1963, “and has probably spent too much time discussing them. The important point is that the establishment of a coordinate women’s college would counteract many of the forces which create this abnormal life.”

Plans for Kirkland College announced
Photo courtesy of Hamilton College Archives

Like Hamilton students, faculty divided over the wisdom of the proposal, with some opponents calling Kirkland College “McEwen’s Revenge.” But others were enthusiastic, not only for the intellectual resources they hoped that the new college would bring to the Hill, but for the beneficial effects they expected the presence of women would have on the demeanor and behavior of the existing (male) student body. As Professor Ellis later ruefully recalled, “We thought the presence of young ladies here on the Hill was going to civilize the men. They were going to shave every day. They were going to wear ties and be much more presentable.”

Kirkland was one of a number of 1960s-era experiments in higher education that shared a utopian vision of students freed to learn at their own pace and in their own way, including, among the best-known examples, Franconia College in Plainfield, New Hampshire, founded in 1963; the Santa Cruz branch of the University of California, opened in 1965; and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, opened in 1970. The spirit of reform thrived in those years and proved infectious, even to sober and experienced administrators like Hamilton’s Dean of the College Winton Tolles, who declared at a brainstorming meeting of the Hamilton College Advisory Committee in May 1964 that the curriculum of the new college should be designed to give its students:

The experience of the joy of learning. … To me this means that we mustn’t do so much teaching, that the girl must do more learning. This probably implies more independent work, and I think the faculty should be in sympathy with that idea and should be recruited with that in mind, and should to some degree control the curriculum along these and other lines, so it would not duplicate Hamilton.

Kirkland’s new curriculum would feature interdisciplinary core courses for the first two years, with a more traditional concentration in the last two. Emphasis in teaching would be on discussion-driven seminars rather than lectures, plus opportunities for independent projects. Class attendance would be encouraged, but not required — if a student felt she could learn the course material on her own, she would not have to attend classes simply to have her presence checked off a list. At the end of the semester, each student would receive a detailed, individualized evaluation of her course performance from her professors rather than letter or numerical grades. In place of departments, the faculty would be housed in four divisions: Science, Social Science, Humanities and Arts; students would take core courses in three of the four divisions in their first and second years. Kirkland’s course offerings would not duplicate subjects already offered by Hamilton, so there would, for instance, be no courses in physics or economics. Instead, Kirkland would supplement and broaden Hamilton’s existing curriculum, introducing new fields of study such as botany and sociology, along with the hitherto neglected studio and performing arts.

While the planners’ thinking on curricular matters was certainly on the cutting edge of the era’s educational theory, their vision of the lives and career patterns of future graduates of Kirkland College remained rooted in more traditional notions of women’s sphere. “To educate a wife able to share fully the experience of an educated husband in such a way that she grows with him while inspiring her children” was laid down as one of the principal goals of the new college in a statement drafted by an advisory group in September 1964. A further aim, to provide women “the academic tools and the necessary confidence to carry on careers,” came with the proviso that those careers would be shaped by “the varying stages of life — before marriage, on a part-time basis during motherhood and on a full-time basis after their children are grown.” This early-1960s vision of the Kirkland graduates’ future would seem quaint if not downright reactionary to the young women who would actually come in the later 1960s and 1970s to study at the new college. The year that saw the creation of Hamilton’s Long Range Planning Committee, 1961, was also the year that the birth control pill first came on the market; the year that the Long Range Planning Committee recommended the creation of a women’s college, 1963, was also the year of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It would take a while for the full consequences of those developments to be felt, but by the time Kirkland opened its doors, young American women (at least the kind of young women attracted to Kirkland) were no longer governed by their mothers’ rules in terms of their sex lives, their plans for childbearing and marriage, and the careers to which they aspired.

Kirkland trustee Millicent Carey McIntosh on earth-moving equipment,
Kirkland College groundbreaking, May 1967
Photo courtesy of Hamilton College Archives

The first four trustees named to the Kirkland board were all men from Hamilton: President Robert McEwen, along with Hamilton trustees Walter Beinecke, Jr., William Bolenius, Class of 1921, and Grant Keehn, Class of 1921 (the latter chairman of the Hamilton board). A fifth Kirkland trustee, and the first woman, proved the most influential: Millicent Carey McIntosh, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and president of Barnard College from1952 to 1962, was an educational innovator and committed feminist, who had been chairing an advisory committee helping to plan the new college. The New York State Board of Regents approved Kirkland’s charter in March 1965, 153 years after their approval of the original Hamilton College charter. The chancellor of the Board of Regents that year, who signed the charter of the new college, was Edgar W. Couper, Class of 1920, father of Dick Couper of the Long Range Planning Committee. The trustees’ next task was to recruit a leader for Kirkland. Because of Millicent McIntosh’s influence on the board, there was some sentiment for hiring a woman as the first president, but that was by no means a hard-and-fast principle among women’s colleges in those days. (Smith College would not install its first woman president until the mid-1970s.) In the end, the trustees settled on a male candidate, Samuel Fisher Babbitt, who took office on July 1, 1966.

Samuel Fisher Babbitt, Kirkland College President, 1966–78
Photo courtesy of Hamilton College Archives

Babbitt was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1929, and following military service in the Korean War (for which he was awarded a Silver Star), he graduated with a B.A. from Yale in 1953, going on to complete a Ph.D. in American studies there in 1965. He served as dean of men at Vanderbilt University from1957 to 1961, followed by a year in Washington as the college and university liaison in the newly formed Peace Corps’ Office of Public Affairs. He returned to Yale as an assistant dean of its graduate school from 1962 through 1966. In 1954, Babbitt married writer Natalie Babbitt, who published two well-received children’s books before Kirkland’s opening and whose later works included the classic Tuck Everlasting. Babbitt also had a distant family connection to Hamilton, although he realized it only after accepting his new position; he was the great-grandnephew of the Reverend Samuel Ware Fisher, Hamilton’s sixth president.

Kirkland’s groundbreaking came on May 25, 1967. The bulldozers moved in, gouging the hayfield but sparing some of the old apple trees. (An apple tree’s image was enshrined in the new seal of Kirkland College.) The blunt concrete buildings that sprang up near the base of a gently sloping 60-acre tract of open land could not have been more at odds architecturally with the stone-faced federalist buildings on the other side of the road, and the contrast seemed to emphasize the experimental nature of the new venture. The three residence halls that went up first (Major, McIntosh and Minor), followed by other dormitories (Keehn, Root, Babbitt and Milbank), the McEwen dining hall, the List Art Center and the Kirner-Johnson Buildings housing classrooms and administrative offices, huddled companionably together unlike the widely spaced Hamilton College buildings, thus making for shorter exposure to wintry weather. (However, long walks in bad weather were unavoidable when Kirkland students needed to use the library or other facilities on the Hamilton side; in Kirkland’s first year, before it had its own dining hall, students had to hike three times daily across the road to Commons.) In another innovation, the dormitories were designed to provide classroom space on their ground levels, suggesting the intimate connection between living and learning.

Advertising the new college
Photo courtesy of Hamilton College Archives

To help attract the charter class, the Kirkland Admission Office, directed by Carole Walker, took the unusual step of taking a full-page advertisement in the December 29, 1967, issue of Time magazine. “When you send your daughter to college,” the advertisement asked provocatively, “will she get an education?” At Kirkland, it promised, in language designed to resonate with its target audience in that year of Sgt. Pepper, education would be “a mind-expanding experience.”

Because the college was under construction while it recruited its entering class in 1967–68, the Kirkland Admission Office had to attract students to an idea rather than a physical reality. College tours tended to be informal. An undated letter to President Babbitt from a prospective student who visited sometime that year captures the flavor of improvisation and everyone-pitching-in that characterized those hectic months before Kirkland’s opening:

I just wanted to write and thank you very much for your personalized tour of the future campus and buildings. It is not often that I expect to be climbing through the unfinished dormitories with the president of the college.

In April 1968, acceptance letters went out to several hundred young women. (A later version of these letters, instituted in the early 1970s, is known affectionately among Kirkland alumnae as “Yes” letters because the word was emblazoned so boldly in large, black Gothic-script writing on the acceptance letters that it showed through the envelope in which it was delivered.) The 172 candidates who accepted Kirkland’s admission offer had the next few months to contemplate what it would mean to be educational pioneers. Among these young women in the incoming Class of 1972 was Connie Sayen, who wrote to President Babbitt at the beginning of August:

[Y]ou cannot imagine how excited and lucky-feeling I am about being able to come to Kirkland. Everything from the newness and explorative nature of the college to the beautiful setting seems wonderful to me. As I have been having more and more contact with what I call “the Kirkland people,” I gradually realize what most pleases me about Kirkland is the care and real love all of you are putting into Kirkland and its preparation, and the consideration and care you have given us, the students. Honestly, I have no fears whatsoever about coming to a “new place.”

Since the First World War, only two women’s colleges had been founded in the Northeast: Sarah Lawrence College in 1926, followed by Bennington College in 1932. Kirkland promoted itself to potential students with comparisons to those sister institutions. But by the time the college actually opened its doors in 1968, Sarah Lawrence had gone coed, followed by Bennington the following year. The trend toward co-education was also affecting Hamilton’s all-male peer institutions: Williams would go coed in 1970, Bowdoin in 1971, Amherst in 1975. Yale University began admitting women in 1969, followed by the other Ivies in the years that followed. That meant that bright young women graduating from high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s had an ever-increasing selection of first-rate colleges and universities to which they could apply. In establishing the “new place” on the Hill in 1968, Hamilton and Kirkland were thus swimming against the coeducational tide.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Doris Friedensohn permalink
    March 23, 2012 10:40 pm

    Dear Sam and friends of Kirkland:

    It is wonderful to be able to revisit here the ideas that drew me and my husband Eli to join the Kirkland faculty and administration in the summer of 1970. To be sure, we were excited by “small is beautiful” and innovative, too. We were thrilled to be able to add our energies and ideas to the concept of what’s good for the education of women is good education. Before moving up to Clinton, we didn’t fully appreciate that what might make sense for women at Kirkland might seem to undermine education at Hamilton. That is, we were not ready for the war between the sexes that played out as a war between educational ideologies. And naive New Yorkers that we were, we didn’t begin to imagine how Hamilton’s pride of situation and superior finances might come together in a few short years to doom Kirkland.

    Still, it was heady to be in on a new venture lead by smart, open and warm people. In the brief time that we were part of Kirkland, Eli and I felt energized by the dramas of innovative teaching and learning and by the high-minded, thoughtful individuals with whom we shared our time in “the apple orchard.” In truth, for most of our time there, we paid little attention to the Hamilton blow-back and enjoyed the camaraderie and braininess of our students and colleagues. I’m still grateful for that time and experience.

    Doris Friedensohn
    Dean of Students, 1970-73

  2. March 24, 2012 9:56 am

    It is fascinating to read about the intentions and expectations of the Long-range Planning Committee when they decided to found a women’s college on the hill. “Unintended consequences” indeed! I was part of that planning process tangentially as a witness to my stepfather Walter Beinecke’s thoughts and concepts, meetings with Sam Babbitt or other trustees, and as I applied and was accepted as a charter class student. It is both inevitable and fateful that Kirkland was established at the vortex of that perfect storm of change in the mid-60s.
    Actually, it a little reminds me of the situation NOW when some people want to turn back the world to a (fantasy?) time when women were content to be a “civilizing influence” on male students, or mothers and helpmeets to their husbands.

  3. Allen Lacy permalink
    March 16, 2013 2:51 pm

    I was a charter faulty member of not one but two colleges, Kirkland and Richard Stockton, which is now in its 42nd thriving year… And attended by a granddaughter as a history major planning on getting a Ph. D. Both colleges began with some of the utopianism of the 60 s, but there were differences. In retrospect, Kirkland was rather open in its hubris toward its brother school. But its ambitions we’re noble, if a bit behind the zeitgeist, even at the outset. But it did not take long for the poisoned apple to show in this apple orchard, in the form of turf warfare just below the top echelon of administrators…at the dean level. Faculty also divided into armed camps. In year 2 I was in Europe on an NEH grant, thus missing not only this faculty conflict but also the larger conflict over Vietnam Nam. With a sense of doom ,but still committed to the idea of starting afresh in higher education, I resigned at the end of my third year. Stockton, a state school with more dependable revenue, turned out to outlive its sometimes quirky utopian illusions, thanks to our student’s more practical ambitions…. And to faculty mutual good will. I still have great admiration for Sam Babbit… And have fond memories of a number of students, especially Mindy & Duffy. Oh yes, I was not immune to participating in the faculty conflict…. We became partisans instead of colleagues and that was a pity.
    Allen Lacy
    Philosophy (Humanities) Associatec Professor, Kirkland

    Now Professor Emeritus of Philosphy and Horticulture , Stockton

  4. September 28, 2013 12:39 pm

    Being a member of the first class of women graduating from Hamilton brought with it a confusing mixture of emotions. Both pride and shame where deeply present from the start of this hybrid postgraduate identity in relation to both Kirkland and Hamilton Colleges. Two personal relationships I continue to shape in relation to the whole institution, so much bigger than me. Kirkland has remained an important part of the development of this fine school, crucial to the exceptional place it has ripened into. Things have changed, time has passed with progress. I can finally say, I am proud of every aspect of my association with an amalgamated community, still far from perfect, but authentically evolving through conscious debate and action, at every opportunity presented. There is a great deal of the energy that is Kirkland still on campus. I return to the hill and to college events, to play my part in the collaborative development perpetually happening there.

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