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‘An Important Counter Space’: How Radcliffe Officially Joined Forces with Harvard

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Radcliffe College was struggling.

For years, the venerable counterpart to Harvard had been in dire financial straits, was forced to dramatically restructure itself in 1996, and had recently been shedding top administrators and staff. The situation was gloomy enough that in April 1998, the Boston Globe predicted that Radcliffe College would soon be no more.

Within a year, they would be proven right.

After a year’s worth of secret, closed-door meetings — whose secrecy often troubled Radcliffe affiliates — Harvard and Radcliffe announced that they would be officially merging in April 1999. By the end of the calendar year, Radcliffe College would cease to exist.

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It was a deeply historic announcement, the most major development in the history of the relationship between the two schools since the landmark 1977 “non-merger merger,” when Radcliffe students enrolled as official Harvard College students.

Still, for some, the loss — though symbolic — was still deeply saddening.

“When I lost Radcliffe, I lost a place that was an important counter space,” said Kathryn B. Clancy ’01, who led the Radcliffe Union of Students in 1999 and 2000. “If you think Harvard is sexist today, guess how sexist it was 25 years ago.”

Lisa E. C. Vogt ’01-’02, who was the president of RUS after Clancy, wrote in an emailed statement that after Radcliffe was dissolved she felt a “vague sense of loss.”

“Radcliffe was the one place where female undergraduates were assumed to be the top priority (in theory, again it wasn’t much present in reality),” Vogt wrote. “After the merger I felt a loss of that institution that was fundamentally set up to support me as a woman at Harvard.”

“But it also meant that Harvard couldn’t pass the buck for any ways it was failing women,” she added.

‘The Best Way Out’

As Radcliffe struggled, top officials from both Harvard and Radcliffe convened starting in late 1998 to chart out the future of the institution. Then-Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine, along with members of the Harvard Corporation and the Radcliffe Board of Trustees, met several times to discuss Radcliffe’s next steps.

According to Rudenstine, who oversaw the merger, these financial concerns made an official merger attractive.

“No question that finances, I think, made the difference,” he said in an interview with The Crimson. “It got to a point where the program that they had hoped would be reviving Radcliffe turned out, just not working.”

There were two options: one, endorsed by alumni of Radcliffe, would rename Radcliffe College to the Radcliffe Center for the Advancement of Women and acknowledge Radcliffe as “the focal point on campus of programs on women.” The other would also include an Institute in Women’s and Gender Studies and a Program in Women’s and Gender Studies with five to seven new professorships.

The group would settle on a hybrid decision: a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study that was designed to “sustain a commitment to the study of women, gender, and society.” The “particulars,” Rudenstine said, would be figured out by the newly-formed Institute’s dean.

Rudenstine said that as the board deliberated, he was particularly focused on the scope and distinctiveness of whatever would come about as a result of the merger.

“Having a much broader institute that would be open to many subjects and many people, but with an emphasis in part on women, seemed to be the best way out,” he said.

‘Tremendous Sense of Bereavement’

The April announcement, though, was met with mixed reactions.

While many students at the time were indifferent to the official merger — the student experience had functionally been the same for decades — Radcliffe alumni had stronger reactions because of “nostalgia,” according to former Harvard President Drew G. Faust, who would be appointed the Institute’s first dean in 2001.

“There were a lot of extremely upset Radcliffe alums who felt their college had been taken away from them and big bad Harvard was going to oppress Radcliffe,” she said.

By 1999, Radcliffe alumni had donated more than $72 million to Radcliffe College — donations that the merger threatened. Radcliffe alumni grew increasingly suspicious of Harvard, believing the University would mismanage their donations and underprioritize the Institute.

Faust said she had to work quickly and actively to win over these alums.

“I had to reach out to them and try to calm them down and make them believe in the new Institute and not feel this tremendous sense of bereavement that was really widespread and deeply felt by many of the alums,” Faust said.

The alumni held a particular mistrust for Harvard because many believed they had been deliberately excluded from conversations about the merger. A year before the official merger, Margaret M. McIntosh ’56 had resigned from her role as the Second Vice President of the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association in protest at the secrecy of top-level discussions.

Cecily C. Selby ’46, a former member of the Radcliffe Board of Trustees, told The Crimson on the day of the merger that “none of us seem to understand why secrecy was essential.”

“I’ll always be loyal, but it’ll be far easier to be loyal now that there are no secrets,” Selby added.

‘They Were Taking the Money’

The students at the time, though, were less preoccupied with the state of the merger and more concerned with the terms, according to Clancy, the RUS co-president.

Clancy said that prior to the merger, RUS maintained an endowment funded by mandatory $5 dues from students. However, RUS lost access to these funds after the merger.

“They basically met with us and told us they were taking the money,” she said. “They were like ‘when this merger happens, since there will no longer be Radcliffe students, this money, these dues that you've been accumulating, that's a pretty good amount of money, so we're going to use it for different purposes now’ and they just took it.”

“This was a moment where we were treated like little babies who didn't know how to handle our own money,” she added. “And we were going to get our money taken away and we had absolutely no recourse to do anything about it.”

Clancy said some students were also particularly concerned about the merger’s effects on communal spaces designed for Radcliffe College students, like the recently-established Lyman Common Room in Agassiz House — a space that often hosted female-focused programming, but would be turned into cubicles after the merger.

“In addition to the fact that we had events in that space, that also was just a space that like when people wanted to get away from frankly, men, we went and hung out there,” Clancy said. “All of that we lost, and without any particular say in how any of that happened.”

Twenty-five years later, some Radcliffe alumni continue to hold that grudge. They believe they have never regained the authority they once had over their alma mater, alleging that Harvard has led the Institute astray.

“Radcliffe Institute isn't even related to issues of gender, or feminism anymore — at all,” Clancy said. “It's an ahistorical place where Harvard has figured out how to do some stuff with very little grounding in what it used to mean to those of us who were more closely connected.”

A spokesperson for the Radcliffe Institute did not respond to requests for comment.

Rudenstine acknowledged the change, and said it is critical to ensure that the Institute remains at the cutting edge.

“After all, the better part of 25 years, something’s going to shift,” he said. “But you got to allow an institution to shift and change, if it finds that as it goes its own way there are things that simply have to be done in order to make sure that the place remains intellectually at the top.”

—Staff writer Sheerea X.Yu contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Dhruv T. Patel can be reached at dhruv.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @dhruvtkpatel.

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