Andrea Solomon never expected to be a pioneer. But that's what she became in 1983, when she arrived on campus as part of the first class of women entering Columbia College.
"It was exhilarating," recalls Solomon (CC'87), now associate dean for academic affairs at the School of General Studies. "It's not often in life you get to start something from nothing and watch it flourish."
Solomon was an original member of the Metrotones, Columbia's first all-female a cappella group. Her roommate founded the first sorority. Now, when she sees flyers on campus for a Metrotones concert or for sororities, she thinks, "wow that didn't exist until we got here."
This fall marks the 25th anniversary of coeducation at the College. Columbia's celebration marking the anniversary will be held in the spring.
Yet while Columbia College was an all-male bastion for its first 229 years, women had been a presence on Morningside Heights for some time. Columbia awarded its first Ph.D. to a woman in 1886, and Barnard College opened its doors for women in 1889. Extension Teaching—which offered adult education classes and was the precursor to the School of General Studies—followed suit in 1904 and, in 1921, granted its first bachelor of science degrees to both women and men. The engineering school's first woman graduated in 1945, though she and subsequent female students took their non-engineering undergraduate courses elsewhere, as the College wouldn't admit them. By the 1970s, cross-registration at Barnard and Columbia meant that undergraduates could take almost any class at either school.
As other colleges opened their doors to women—Yale was the first all-male Ivy League school to do so, in 1969—Columbia College remained resolutely single-sex.
Eventually, the trend was hard to ignore. "No one here could explain what value there was in a Columbia that remained all-male," says Roger Lehecka, dean of students from 1979 to 1998.
Michael Rosenthal, then associate dean of the College, calls it "preposterous that we weren't already coed." Rosenthal, now professor of English and comparative literature, credits Lehecka with energizing the students, and Arnold Collery, former dean of the College, with launching "the public campaign to become coed." Collery established a committee of faculty, alumni and students to examine the possibility of turning coed. Also instrumental in implementing the plans for coeducation was Robert Pollack, then Columbia College dean and a professor of biological sciences.
The sticking point was how Columbia could admit women without doing damage to Barnard, Columbia's academic sibling. After Michael Sovern became president of the University in 1980, he opened discussions with Barnard's new president, Ellen Futter, who had been Sovern's student when he was a law professor. "It was particularly important to be sensitive to Barnard's needs since they had come into being because Columbia had refused to admit women," says Sovern, whose daughter also graduated from Barnard. "The idea of rolling over them was unthinkable."
At first, talks revolved around the two schools sharing classes, faculty and facilities, as a way for Columbia to go coed without admitting women. Ultimately, though, Barnard declined what would have been a de facto merger.
After opening its doors to women, Columbia nearly doubled its applicant pool. A worried Barnard held its breath. In the academic year prior to going coed, 3,700 men applied to Columbia College. In the following year, according to Jim McMenamin, then director of admissions, applications rose to almost 5,800, and nearly 41 percent were female applicants. "It was obvious to me that Columbia going coed on its own would double our applications in just a few short years, which is what happened," says McMenamin. And then some: The class of 2011 had 18,801 applications.
Fears about Barnard, meanwhile, proved to be unfounded. It thrived with a coed Columbia next door. "Within a couple of years, it was clear the total number of women applying to both institutions was much larger than either institution expected," says Robert A. McCaughey, a Barnard professor who has written a history of Columbia University. "And both institutions were in the happy situation of being able to be more selective."
Getting women to apply to Columbia was one thing. Taking care of their needs once they were on campus was another. More than a year before they arrived, a committee chaired by Rosenthal was created to oversee the transition for the first class of women. The to-do list included refurbishing dorms, rethinking dormitory security, expanding health services to include women's health issues, merging Barnard and Columbia's athletics programs, creating a women's center on campus, working with admissions on efforts to recruit women and hiring a coeducational coordinator to supervise the process.
"Of all the things we were involved in," says Rosenthal, "making that successful transition to coed was a wonderful moment for all of us."
As head resident of Carman Hall in 1983, Brian Krisberg (CC'81, LAW'84) helped usher in the freshman dorm's first women residents. Admitting women, he says, improved the College "in every possible way."
"The classroom environment was more interesting, the social environment better," adds Krisberg, now a partner at an international law firm. "The campus, to me, just became more vibrant...In a lot of ways, virtually overnight, the environment as a whole changed for the better."
© Columbia University