More than 100 Radcliffe College alumnae signed onto letters protesting a decision by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to adopt the vernacular name Harvard Radcliffe Institute earlier this year.
The Institute announced the name change on Jan. 28, but several alumnae expressed concern after seeing it referred to as the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in a mailing in advance of Radcliffe Day later this month, after which multiple classes, including the classes of 1968 and 1971, sent letters to Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin.
In a letter from the class of 1968, nearly 80 alumnae spoke out against the name change.
“Recent mailings from Harvard University have referred to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study as the ‘Harvard Radcliffe Institute,’” the letter read. “The undersigned Radcliffe alumnae ... are writing to deplore this in the strongest terms.”
A separate letter signed by around 70 people — spearheaded by Katherine W. Bernier ’71 and also including some male alumni of the College — made similar complaints.
“There are still those of us, kicking and contributing, who were admitted to Radcliffe College; and many have already expressed horror and chagrin at the casual dismissive gesture of adding Harvard, the bastion of male privilege and early denier of women’s education, to the name of the Radcliffe Institute,” Bernier’s letter read.
In a response to the letter from the class of 1968, Brown-Nagin noted that the official name of the Institute will remain the Radcliffe Institute but that the new “shorthand” helps clarify the Institute’s standing within Harvard and among the public.
“Our full name remains the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University; that name is and will continue to be apparent in our website and public-facing materials,” she wrote.
“However, it has been clear for some time that the Institute’s achievements—a testament to its visionary leaders and loyal supporters—suffer from a lack of understanding of our purpose and history, both within the Harvard community and among the broader public,” she added.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies was formally established as an independent entity in 1999 following the merging of Radcliffe College with Harvard College.
Prior to the merger, the Institute was contained within Radcliffe College and known as the Bunting Institute, after former Radcliffe College president Mary I. “Polly” Bunting. Bunting founded it as the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study in 1960 to combat the “climate of non-expectation” for female scholars.
The Institute announced a redesign of its website alongside the new vernacular name in January 2021. Though the new site contains the full name — Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study — in bold letters on the homepage, the site refers to the Institute as the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Nancy Stieber ’71, who also served as a fellow at the Institute from 2000-2001, said she was “shocked” to see the Radcliffe shield “juxtaposed” with the words “Harvard Radcliffe Institute.”
“Everyone connected directly with whom I’ve shared this new logo has been perturbed and upset by seeing it,” she said.
Susan S. Smart ’71 noted she believes the name change is “a violation of the spirit” of the 1999 agreement, which, according to Stieber, calls for the Institute to “sustain a continuing commitment” to the study of women, gender and society.
Smart added that the name change could signal the Radcliffe name’s “descent into obscurity,” quoting the letter from Bernier.
“The renaming was probably not intended to mean that, but presenting the public face of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, instead of honoring the creator of the Radcliffe Institute, is unacceptable to many of us,” Smart said.
Institute spokesperson Jane F. Huber wrote in an email that the Institute does not believe the “introduction of a shorter vernacular name” is a threat to the legacy of Radcliffe College, emphasizing that the Institute’s position is that the change “reflects our commitment to preserve, amplify, and expand on that legacy.”
“We are genuinely saddened that some alumnae feel that Radcliffe is being diminished,” she wrote, noting that the legacy of Radcliffe College “remains vital to today’s Radcliffe Institute.”
Huber added that the purpose of the vernacular change was for practical publicity purposes after feedback that the name was “too cumbersome” and did not “clearly suggest Radcliffe’s relationship to Harvard University.”
“We were increasingly being cited simply as ‘an institute at Harvard,’ and we felt that if we did not take action, this common usage would lead to the erasure of Radcliffe,” she wrote. “The adoption of Harvard Radcliffe Institute is an effort to protect the legacy and name of Radcliffe.”
Brown-Nagin also noted in her reply to the class of 1968 that she had received support for the change from other graduates of Radcliffe College.
“Indeed, while I understand and appreciate your concerns regarding our new branding, I also heard from many alumnae who value the clearer links we are creating to the history of Radcliffe College,” she wrote.
Bernier said Brown-Nagin’s response was “gracious,” but “may not have realized how offensive [the change] would be to so many,” noting she was “fine” with the less publicity if the full name was preserved.
“I think it’s well-known among serious scholars who are interested in those kinds of opportunities — at least enough of them to fill the roster of the year,” she said.
Ann B. Lesk ’68, however, called the Institute’s response, specifically the Dean’s letter, “dismissive,” noting that her class had suggested the alternative “Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.”
“You want the Harvard name on it? Make it the ‘Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University,’” she said. “Don’t submerge Radcliffe in ‘Harvard Radcliffe Institute.’”
Lesk added that the change had made her, along with other Radcliffe College alumnae as well as some alumni of Harvard College, rethink their donations to the Institute.
“I will, for instance, will direct all future contributions to the Schlesinger Library, which is very much true to the original spirit of the Radcliffe Institute,” she said. “Others of my classmates have said that they are no longer interested in supporting the Institute as a result of this.”
“I hope President Bacow will take another look at this,” she added.
—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.