"We didn't seize the moment"
Despite the positive indications from the experiment, the College still felt ambivalence toward full coeducation-to the point where, in 1972, President Charles DeCarlo convened a faculty/student committee to study the issue and make recommendations on whether Sarah Lawrence should go fully coed. Coeducation-of which DeCarlo was a champion-was seen by some as a natural solution to resolve the problems the College was experiencing with admissions and a downtrend in applications, in that it would double the pool of potential students, and the expectation was that the committee would produce a report favorable to full coeducation.
But that's not how things turned out. Instead, the final report in April 1973 reflected an uneasy compromise–and, some felt, an impossible contradiction–between opposing forces. First, the report concluded, Sarah Lawrence should recommit itself to the education of women. Second, because the unique education it offered had proved itself also “to be appropriate to the needs of men and is likely to be increasingly so,” men should be part of the student body. Thus, the committee's recommendation was that “for the foreseeable future, Sarah Lawrence [should] remain a college oriented towards the education of women.”
The report represented a lost opportunity, according to Ilja Wachs, who served on the committee. “It was the worst possible thing to conclude because, at that time, we had the opportunity to go fully coeducational,” he says. Students-male and female-were influenced by the cultural and social revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “They were not so interested in advancing their careers and therefore didn't need the old boys’ networks. People were questioning traditional assumptions and were willing to look at an untraditional, progressive place. It was just the ideal time to go coed.”
Margery Franklin, now director of the College’s Child Development Institute and a relative newcomer to the psychology faculty in the early ’70s, remembers faculty meetings where discussions were animated. Some faculty, she recalls, believed that bringing men to parity would mean dismantling the College’s distinctive educational system. “We'd have to cater to the needs of men, and men are very career-oriented, went one argument,” Franklin says. “Therefore SLC would become the kind of place where we had to have majors. My argument was that women should be career-oriented too! Whatever the pluses and minuses of changing our system to accommodate coeducation should apply equally to both sexes. But there were faculty members-with whom I had always been in agreement otherwise-who worried that the curriculum would change, that seminars would change and men would become dominant. I argued that it was up to us faculty to preserve our values and not favor the men over the women.”
But the compromise outcome has left lasting effects on Sarah Lawrence. “That's why we're only twenty-five percent coeducational,” Ilja Wachs says. “We didn't seize the moment when it was offered to us.”
“Three to one”
So why hasn't the ratio of women to men changed significantly after more than 30 years? It has stood more or less at 75-25 since the fateful 1972 decision. In response to questions about why more men don't enroll, Thyra Briggs cites the barely wavering percentage of men who choose to apply, which this year stands between 23 and 24 percent. “As long as our applicant pool is 75-25, our ratio of admitted students will be 75-25,” she says. For decades, a mild rumble of rumors suggested that other schools competitive with SLC had lowered their standards in order to achieve greater balance when they began admitting men-and that Sarah Lawrence secretly has created a double-standard for admitting men in an effort to pad the ratio. It's a suggestion that Briggs quickly rejects. “If we wanted to really make us closer to 50-50, we could do it: we could just admit every man who applied. But just as most students overall are not right for Sarah Lawrence, most male students are not right for Sarah Lawrence. We have never been willing to lower our standards to admit men, and we've never been willing to take a student we know is not going to be right for this place.”
But therein lies the conundrum: You have to have a critical mass, Briggs says, in order to make prospective students feel that Sarah Lawrence is right for them, and that they will be comfortable and accepted. If they don't feel they will be, they don't apply. “The question is whether we have critical mass now,” she says, “and I would say that we don't.
“We are looking to bring to this campus any group that will add diversity of experience and thought, and to be honest, clearly, men do that...we need to have those voices on campus, because men in this country and the world do have a very different experience from women. But we're absolutely committed to bringing to this campus the students who are right for us.”
While there is no initiative to increase the number of men who apply to the College, according to President Myers, there is concern that Sarah Lawrence doesn't attract men and women equally. “We're not creating a particular way of admitting men that would be different from admitting women. What we're trying to do is let the word out that we are coeducational and that we welcome men, and that they will be admitted the same way women are. And if the ratio changes, good; and if it doesn't, it doesn't.
“If more men knew we were coed, more of them would want this kind of education, where questioning and initiative are encouraged and rewarded.”
When asked why Sarah Lawrence is a good place for men to come, Myers wastes no time. “Because it's a good place for women to come! It's a good place, period. It's the kind of education which you will not find anywhere else at the intense level at which we do it here,” she says.