Sue Washburn ’73 was a member of Franklin & Marshall’s first coed class. Now she’s also the College’s first alumna to serve as chair of the Board of Trustees. She describes her student days as a transformative time of great intellectual and educational “ferment and foment.”
A first-generation college student from Rahway, N.J., Washburn applied to F&M in fall 1968 because she was interested in studying Greek, and the College offered a scholarship for such students. Ron Potier, then dean of admission, told her that F&M did not admit women -- yet. But he was confident that the Board would change its policy, and promised to refund her application fee if he was wrong.
Potier’s instincts were correct. In January 1969, the Board voted to admit women, giving the College just eight months to bring in its first coed class. Washburn was admitted and awarded the scholarship that enabled her to attend F&M. Before she arrived on campus, a student ambassador visited her at her home, but his message wasn’t particularly welcoming. “He told me that girls would bring down F&M’s academic standards,” Washburn said. The apparent concern never materialized, since the grade point averages of women were as strong -- and in some cases, stronger -- than those of men.
Coeducation had been approved so quickly that “the College was pretty unprepared for us,” Washburn recalls. “All the first-year ‘coeds’ were housed in Marshall Hall, with a male student assigned as a guard who reviewed all guests. We had rules that the men didn’t have: curfews, parietals, once-weekly ‘Ladies’ Night’ at the gym. The bathrooms still had urinals. But we weren’t shy about demanding fair and equal treatment and access, and the College was generally willing to accommodate us.”
It was a time of tremendous campus upheaval across the country. Washburn remembers it as a time of great personal growth and activism about the Vietnam War, racial inequality, women’s rights, and the nascent environmental movement.
She found no difference in how faculty treated men and women -- once the predominantly male faculty became accustomed to having women in their classes. She fondly remembers English professor Robert Russell, who was blind. He had a finely developed ability to recognize students’ voices, and encouraged his students to use all of their available senses to attend to writers’ distinct voices. “We became much more attentive readers because he challenged us to read and see and hear and feel the work with greater intention,” Washburn says.
After she graduated, Washburn joined F&M’s administrative staff. Here, too, the College was not quite ready for women. “When I was hired, my compensation included a bedroom and sitting room in the Alumni House. I really loved it, but after a while, I was ready to move off campus. I asked my boss to adjust my salary up to the same level as that of a male co-worker doing the same job I was doing with the same level of experience. When my boss told me he didn’t think that was possible, I remember saying, ‘I am one of the first alumnae administrators in this College. Do you really think it’s right to pay me less than you’re paying a non-alum man when we’re doing the same job?’ I got my salary adjustment!”
As chair of F&M’s Board of Trustees, does Washburn see a difference in male and female leadership styles? “Women are often seen as having ‘soft skills’ -- listening, empathy, collaboration... These are skills that matter more than ever in today’s diverse workplaces and communities. Sometimes women feel they have to be ‘tough’ to be taken seriously. We should all develop our own styles, not just fall into stereotypic gendered traps.”
In the ever-changing landscape of higher education, Washburn believes institutions like F&M have the ability to meet the needs of today’s students while offering academic excellence.
“We’re in a time of high-velocity change in which the very value of a college education is being challenged,” she says. “Colleges and universities are serving an increasingly diverse student body with many issues: food insecurity, homelessness, racial inequities, gender and sexual identities, mental health concerns, family issues, personal safety and high-risk behaviors. Our institutions need to be more aware and inclusive to address these issues and student needs at the same time we’re providing rigorous educational opportunities.”