The Hill in History
Hamilton’s rich historic legacy provides much of the 21st-century College’s strength and vision. It also comprises a wealth of fascinating stories that illuminate the College’s changing place in the region, the nation and the world. As Hamilton marks its Bicentennial this month, it also observes the 40th anniversary of the graduation of the Kirkland College charter class.
Charter class at Kirkland College faced new frontiers
To help attract the Kirkland College charter class, the College’s new Admission Office, directed by Carole Walker, took the unusual step of taking out a full-page advertisement in the Dec. 29, 1967, issue of Time magazine. “When you send your daughter to college,” the advertisement asked provocatively, “will she get an education?” At Kirkland, it promised, in language designed to resonate with its target audience in that year of Sgt. Pepper, education would be “a mind-expanding experience.”
Because Kirkland was under construction while it recruited its entering class in 1967-68, the Admission Office had to attract students to an idea rather than a physical reality. College tours tended to be informal. An undated letter to President Sam Babbitt from a prospective student who visited that year captures the flavor of improvisation and everyone-pitching-in that characterized those hectic months before Kirkland’s opening:
I just wanted to write and thank you very much for your personalized tour of the future campus and buildings. It is not often that I expect to be climbing through the unfinished dormitories with the President of the college.
In April 1968, acceptance letters went out to several hundred young women. The 172 candidates who accepted Kirkland’s admission offer had the next few months to contemplate what it would mean to be educational pioneers. Among those in the incoming Class of 1972 was Connie Sayen, who wrote to Babbitt at the beginning of August:
[Y]ou cannot imagine how excited and lucky-feeling I am about being able to come to Kirkland. Every-thing from the newness and explorative nature of the college to the beautiful setting seems wonderful to me. As I have been having more and more contact with what I call “the Kirkland people,” I gradually realize what most pleases me about Kirkland is the care and real love all of you are putting into Kirkland and its preparation, and the consideration and care you have given us, the students. Honestly, I have no fears whatsoever about coming to a “new place.”
Those 172 women, most of them first-year students but including five sophomores, gathered in the Chapel on Sept. 15, 1968, in the first Kirkland College convocation. It was almost certainly the largest assembly of women ever to have gathered together under the Chapel’s roof since the building was erected in 1827. They were welcomed by Babbitt, Dean of Faculty Inez Nelbach and trustee Millicent McIntosh. Afterward, students, faculty members and administrators made their way in a long column past the Kirkland Cottage and across College Hill Road to their new college, still very much a construction site, with only three buildings open for business. During the dedication ceremony that renamed Dormitories A, B and C as Minor, Major and McIntosh, a butterfly briefly touched down on Babbitt’s mortarboard, a whimsical touch to the proceedings that everyone took as a good omen.
The New York Times ran a feature about the Kirkland College opening convocation and what ensued:
By mid-afternoon, dresses were hung, books and flowers were arranged on windowsills, bicycles were parked at the entrances and the girls were old friends. As a kind of welcome, a car drove through the grounds with husky Hamilton students draped over every inch. It was the football team. The girls, quiet in their secondary-school timidity, returned shy smiles to the Hamilton students’ ‘Hi ya!’ and whispered among themselves.
In June 1968, several months before Kirkland students had first arrived on the Hill, President Babbitt sent all of them a letter, asking that they consider a number of questions over the summer, including what sort of social rules they would like to have govern their lives on campus. Aileen Sellis, Class of 1971, was among a number of students who responded before convocation day arrived. She wrote to tell the president that she would be “inclined to say no” to any formal rules such as “a sign-in sign-out system,” since
most of us are responsible and reliable students. We will come in at a reasonable hour, but for those who won’t, they wouldn’t under a sign-out system either. The more rules imposed … the harder they try to break them.
On the evening of convocation, the entire Kirkland student body, along with the staff and the 21 members of the College’s faculty, met in assembly. After a number of other issues were discussed, the meeting turned to the question of “parietals,” the dormitory rules — then still a standard feature on most college campuses — that governed visitors of the opposite sex, curfews and the like. Babbitt asked the students what they thought. Myra Schlosberg Pertz (“a young woman in a splendidly large violet-colored hat,” as Babbitt would remember some decades later), Class of 1971, stood up and declared, to the cheers of the assemblage, that she didn’t think there should be any rules. Before the Pertz resolution came to a vote, Babbitt and Nelbach called a time out and went behind a curtain to decide what to do next. “Both of us knew that this was Test #1,” Babbitt recalled in a talk at Hamilton in 2002:
Did we mean what was in the brochure? Did we really intend to give the community full say in how their lives would be lived? Or was this a situation that simply called for a temporary restraining order so that what we saw as common sense might be served and chaos averted? I confess that, if [Dean Nelbach] had balked, I probably would have backed down. But, she knew, as I did, that our credibility was on the line. She said she could live with it if I could. So we had a vote, and chaos won.
On Sept. 27 the students met again and this time voted to repeal chaos. After nearly two weeks of Hamilton and Colgate men roaming the campus at all hours, the Kirkland women decided that some rules were necessary after all. They appointed an ad hoc committee to draw up a new set of rules. Under the new dispensation male visitors in the residence halls would be permitted only between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., and then again from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., when the last stragglers would have to depart. Things quieted down thereafter (though the rules were never strictly enforced). With this precedent established, subsequent decisions regarding campus life were regularly determined by meetings of the Kirkland Assembly, which included students, faculty members and staff.
The spirit of participatory democracy proved infectious.
The notion that Kirkland would go about its business across College Hill Road without having any impact on staid, traditional Hamilton College died a quick death in the fall of 1968. As a Spectator editorial on Hamilton’s parietal rules declared later that semester:
Hamilton is changing and will continue to change but slowly, encumbered by the inertia of over 150 years. Kirkland is now what Hamilton can only grope towards and we are more than a little jealous.
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Excerpted from On the Hill: A Bicentennial History of Hamilton College by Maurice Isserman, the Publius Virgilius Professor of American History, published last year in conjunction with the College’s Bicentennial.