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Kirkland’s Last Graduating Class

April 21, 2023
Commencement invitation 78

Takeover. Appropriation. Acquisition. Consolidation. Seizure. Absorption. Merger. Whatever you call it, Kirkland officially closed after the conclusion of the spring semester in 1978. As a result, the senior class—my class—holds the ignominious distinction of being known as the last graduating class of Kirkland College. For some, this epithet is a badge of honor. For others, it’s a painful reminder of the bruising process that students and faculty endured during the unexpected merger of two coordinate educational institutions. 

Let’s back up to set the stage. It was spring in Clinton, when snow had finally melted and apple blossoms dotted the landscape. On May 9, 1977, students were summoned to an important community meeting at 4 P.M. in the Kirner-Johnson Auditorium (not the Red Pit as Sam Babbitt’s account in Limited Engagement asserts).

Until this point, many of us had no idea that there was a problem. Others had heard whispers of financial pressures, but it all seemed vague. Besides, as students, were were consumed by exams and plans for summer. Ironically, Kirkland was about to launch The Campaign for the Second Decade! So the meeting in which President Babbitt outlined the financial predicament Kirkland faced and the potential outcome if Hamilton did not agree to support the college financially was a gut punch. You could hears the gasps and see the worry and confusion etched on the faces of the men and women who attended the meeting. Students wondered, Should I transfer to another college? Fight back and save the college? Wait and hope for the best?

In Limited Engagement, Sam details the complex chronology of failed negotiations and the eventual merger on pages 316—392. Following an anxiety-riddled summer, Kirkland students continued protest efforts that had begun in spring 1977 after the proverbial cat had been let out of the bag. We circulated petitions, wrote telegrams and letters to Hamilton trustees, raised money, and wore green armbands and T-shirts with clever slogans like “Living Together is Better Than Being Married.” Many of us organized or attended on-campus protests, and alumnae held meetings in various cities around the country. Can you imagine how distracting this was for seniors trying to complete final course work and “capstone” senior projects?

Ultimately, the best efforts of students, alumnae, faculty, administration, trustees, parents, and fans of Kirkland did little to persuade Hamilton to preserve our ten-year coordinate system. Before the two colleges officially parted ways, the class of 1978 had its graduation with all the pomp and ceremony we could muster. Our families and friends joined the celebration, and then we were off to explore the world. As Sam put it in his last Kirkland commencement speech:

In every course, and in a variety of ways, it was our aim to sharpen your perceptions—to sharpen what you see and how you see it, be it a physical object or a sequence of words in type. The name of the game is to raise your perceptions by giving you a greater and deeper context in which to see, or hear, or feel, and then to give you the scholars’ tools so that by ordering and by comparison and by evaluating, you can understand past judgments about the materials you study and make the first forays into judgments of your own. . . .Finally, in the Senior Project, which you have cursed and loved alternatively, you have been given a solo flight. If you and we did well, that project was process checked out, product produced, and certification that you are what we hoped you would be—your own person.

Over time, the foundation of what so many had carefully constructed was gradually dismantled and relics—physical, curricular, cultural, spiritual, architectural—of what was Kirkland disappeared seemingly into thin air. As we heard from a handful of classmates and staff years later, some bore witness to photos, files, and other materials documenting the existence of Kirkland being tossed into a dumpster. Several bravely dove in, rescuing these vitally important remnants of a bold decade in women’s education. As a consequence of the 1978 merger, some alumnae felt such anger and disappointment that they refused to engage with Hamilton under any circumstances, whether that meant traveling back to the Hill for reunions or receiving alumni-related mailings and emails. Others tried to forget and move on, often resorting to the practical option of listing Hamilton as her college, rather than naming Kirkland. Whatever your own feelings are about the ending of Kirkland College, women and men in the classes of 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981 lived through it. Perhaps more importantly, they were impacted and forever changed by the experience. 

In recent years, I’ve wondered about the clunky way the merger was handled by Hamilton and its trustees. Could the bitter fallout that to a certain degree persists forty-five years later have been avoided? Was there a more sensible way to have joined the two colleges and to have addressed the traumatic impact of the merger on students? Looking back, we didn’t have support groups, social workers, mediators, or psychologists to guide us through what was happening. We didn’t have an advisory council, as Pembroke did, to create its own center and conduct an oral history project after being merged with Brown University. In 2023, it seems to me that there’s still much to learn about mistakes made in the process by studying the care and conduct with which other coordinate colleges such as Rutgers/William Douglass, Urseline/Bellarmine, Harvard/Radcliffe, and Tulane/Newcomb handled their splits.

Rallying the faithful

Despite conscious or unconscious attempts to expunge Kirkland from the Hamilton campus, Kirkland alumnae have persisted. In small and significant ways, we’ve found ways to keep Kirkland’s legacy alive by celebrating its innovative curriculum, commemorating its campus architecture, and continuing its commitment to women. Indeed, there is much on the Hill that reflects how Kirkland’s students, faculty, and administration contributed to make Hamilton the institution it is today. When you are there, ask a current student about the college’s open curriculum, concentrations, American studies, creative writing, and senior projects. Ask about the campus literary magazine Red Weather, the Womxn’s Center, and the all-women Special K a cappella group. All of these are Kirkland carryovers. And check out the Kirkland Gate, the Kirkland Wall, the Kirkland Alumnae Authors bookshelf in the Hamilton College bookstore, and the Kirkland Green. These are initiatives suggested, created, and carried out by our alumnae. 

What was your class year, and how did the merger affect you?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Maurice Isserman permalink
    April 21, 2023 7:59 am

    I always smile when I see students (women and men) wearing green Kirkland sweaters on campus — Kirkland lives!

    • April 22, 2023 12:44 pm

      Thank you for your part in that, Professor – ensuring that the Kirkland story is a part of Hamilton’s official history:

    • newsgirljudy permalink
      April 25, 2023 9:04 pm

      Thank you, Maurice. It warms my soul to know that. Judy

      • Maurice Isserman permalink
        April 25, 2023 9:09 pm

        Well, Judy, you and some of your classmates schooled me in the importance of Kirkland in the Hamilton story, and helped me write a better book, for which I will always be grateful. Also Marcia, spouse, and Ruth, daughter, both graduates of Smith, never let me forget the importance of women’s colleges.

  2. Jan sidebotham permalink
    April 21, 2023 8:30 am

    Beautiful piece. I am glad to have this to share with my children so that they can get a sense of this experience and of Kirkland itself.

  3. Nancy Dalva (K'72) permalink
    April 21, 2023 10:37 am

    I was told, in an aside in the back garden of Mrs. Root’s lovely house, which had by then become Admissions, by a staff member addressing my embittered stance–to wit, I should have gone to Sarah Lawrence or Bennington –that once the all-male Ivies opened to women (the year after my college application year), the quality of Kirkland applicants on standardized tests dropped dramatically in relation to Hamilton applicants. (This situation also later plagued my other quasi-alma mater Bryn Mawr, where I spent my junior year.) To return to my point, this Admissions staffer suggested the lack of internal support reflected the diminishing returns Kirkland offered in the way of what the decision-makers considered ideal applicants. I have no idea if this explanation then offered to me was correct, I merely share it. I graduated from Kirkland with 27 semesters of literature (and the core courses) and I am grateful I have a BA at all, given my lamentable resistance to requirements. (I managed to get into the three grad schools I applied to, so there’s also that.)

  4. Nancy Dalva permalink
    April 21, 2023 10:43 am

    post script: what I was told was that the SAT scores on incoming Kirkland applicants were far below those of Hamilton applicants….Hamilton in my day was an popular “safety school” (one applied to FOUR colleges not a zillion) among male Ivy aspirants, so it made sense to me, since Kirkland was nobody’s safety, it was sui generis. Hamilton was an interesting mix in some ways.

  5. Elisabeth Horwitt permalink
    April 21, 2023 11:13 am

    Hey Jo, Your piece put all of our feelings about the loss of Kirkland perfectly. I came to the last graduation and recall hugging and kissing and screaming and dancing with many friends. This site is so valuable! I am going to encourage people to write for it (including myself when I’ve got a moment or two) and read it. Like Kirkland’s spirit, I want it to live on, and am trying to think up ways to support it.

  6. April 24, 2023 12:27 pm

    Thank you, Jo. Wonderfully written.

  7. April 25, 2023 9:23 am

    Thank you a million for writing this–such a wonderful reminder

  8. April 25, 2023 9:23 am

    Thank you so so much for posting this–a wonderful reminisce

  9. newsgirljudy permalink
    April 25, 2023 9:14 pm

    Jo- what a beautiful piece, and so timely. As you know, I’ve been thnking about that poignant and confusing time when the world seemed full of possibility, yet so much time and energy was spent protesting the merger and worrying about what would happen to our professors, our school, and our history. Some 12 years after we first launched this site, here we are still preserving memories and imagery, documenting our chapter in history, and yes, celebrating our good fortune to have attended Kirkland and one another. #countourselvesaslucky #applecorps #orchardtales

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