Talk of coeducation resumed in the spring of 1967, when Princeton University approached Sarah Lawrence to study the possibility of an affiliation; the Sarah Lawrence campus would be relocated to Princeton. Yale had made a similar approach to Vassar the previous year; those talks had failed after Vassar's alumnae and faculty opposed the move.
According to Ilja Wachs, who arrived in 1965 to teach literature at Sarah Lawrence and later served as dean of the college, the Princeton merger posed a fundamental problem: the College could lose the very thing that made it Sarah Lawrence. “There was a consensus,” Wachs says. “If you take a small college with a small or no endowment and make it the coordinate college to an enormously wealthy university, sooner or later you would lose your identity.” Sarah Lawrence's board of trustees turned down Princeton's offer, stating that “the best interest of Sarah Lawrence College would not be served by moving to Princeton.”
But 1967 ended with a critical experiment, when the College decided to admit a limited number of men as regular undergraduates in any field, granting credit for the BA degree from Sarah Lawrence-and to study the results of that action. Six intrepid men enrolled as undergraduates during the 1967-1968 academic year. This move toward “creeping coeducation,” as it was described in the student newspaper The Emanon, was attributed to the failed talks with Princeton, as well as a growing consensus that the time was right for coeducation, but it should be done slowly, by absorption rather than by merging. The time was, in fact, right at a variety of schools. The year 1968 marked the apex of a period of upheaval in the country that prompted many social and cultural changes, coeducation being only one of them, according to sociologist Jerome Karabel, whose recent book, The Chosen, studies the history of admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. “In this environment, anything less than full coeducation seemed like a dubious compromise on an issue of fundamental principle: the ideal of equality of opportunity applied to women, too,” Karabel says. By 1969, a growing number of schools announced their plans to go coed, among them Yale, Princeton, Trinity College, Franklin & Marshall College, Georgetown, Kenyon College, University of the South, MacMurray College, Vassar and Connecticut College.
In February 1968, The New York Times reported Sarah Lawrence's plans to go coed with the six men who enrolled that semester. The plan was to accept a limited number of transfer students who had been in men's colleges at least two years, who had “distinguished themselves and possess interest in the courses in which Sarah Lawrence specializes.” Ultimately, many more men would be accepted, the report predicted.
The Times got it right.
“Just regular guys”
Michael Sartisky ’73, now president and CEO of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, was a freshman at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, playing basketball, studying literature and attending lecture classes of 150 students. But when he visited Sarah Lawrence, he had what he describes as a transformative moment during a modern dance performance: attracted to the different form of physical expression and the innovative educational opportunities, he transferred to the College and included modern dance in his studies.
Sartisky was drawn by the individual attention that the College offers, and along the way, subtly changed the way he interacted with women as his peers, he says. “As one in such a distinct minority, I was very aware of the gender difference.” Ultimately, being one of a few men in the class “heightened my consciousness, making me aware that I needed to be more attentive to what they were saying. It tempered my interrelation with women in my classes,” he says. Like some others in his class-male and female, Sartisky favors keeping the gender ratio tilted to more women than men. “It's possible for a college to admit men and still maintain a fundamentally women-friendly environment. Sarah Lawrence has been successful at this.”
As an African-American teenager growing up on New York City's Lower East Side, Donald Singletary ’73 had never heard of Sarah Lawrence, but he became interested in the spring of 1969 when the sister of a friend suggested that he apply. Now a public relations consultant and adjunct professor at New York University, Singletary was first drawn by the number of women, he admits; he also found the small size of the College and the writing program-he was a budding journalist-extremely attractive. “People seemed to place a lot of emphasis on personal growth,” he says.
Singletary's experience reflects the different social pressures and issues of the time, including the Vietnam War and the draft, which influenced his decision-and that of many of his peers-to go to college. "We were a ragtag team of men who were thrown together," he describes his classmates of the first few years of coeducation. "Just regular guys who stumbled into it and happened to wind up there."
But, like a lot of those guys, Singletary found that socially, things were a lot less interesting than the gender ratio may have suggested, and that some of the female students-those who had selected the College when it was single-sex-were not interested in having them around. "The close proximity of men, living in dorms nearby, made some women uncomfortable," he says.
The disappointing social life was exacerbated by race. A school where he was one of only 38 African-American male and female students "wasn't a fun place to be. There was a strong feeling of being stuck in campus; it was desolate on weekends." But like Sartisky, Singletary says he could not have asked for a better academic experience-one that was helped, not hindered, by coeducation, he claims. "Anything that doesn't hurt the educational system at Sarah Lawrence is good. Coeducation has enhanced the integrity of the system at Sarah Lawrence."
The new SLC men soon began finding "masculine" things to do. "There was a bunch of us Sarah Lawrence guys who began a poker game about halfway through that first year of coeducation," Clifford May '73 (now president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) recalled at a "Men of Sarah Lawrence" panel in 1998. "It was a very bonding experience. We smoked, we played poker-and sometimes we sang show tunes." The College also provided opportunities for athletics: within a few years, the "Green Machine" basketball team and other men-only squads joined the roster of Sarah Lawrence teams. But the school never joined the NCAA, unlike other former women's schools, nor did it "beef up" its science offerings or add disciplines to its curriculum thought to attract men, like business and engineering.