Richard Kneedler ’65, P’98, has probably seen Franklin & Marshall from more perspectives than just about anyone else. He enrolled at an all-male college in 1961; returned to teach French when F&M was still an all-male institution; served on the faculty before, during and after coeducation; and held a host of administrative positions, culminating in 14 years as president from 1988 to 2002. What impact did coeducation have on his alma mater?
“F&M’s academic standards increased dramatically with coeducation,” Kneedler recalls. “Declining selectivity was clearly the driver of coeducation. In the mid-1960s, the College had a lot of seats to fill.”
Kneedler was attracted to F&M largely for its welcoming atmosphere. He’d found Princeton too big and Swarthmore too formal. Franklin & Marshall had a particularly engaging admissions process. Most important, F&M treated students as adults.
Two contrasting anecdotes illustrate his point. Kneedler was elected to Phi Beta Kappa when he was just a sophomore. In his junior year, the dean of students asked to see him. He had noticed that Kneedler had failed badminton -- a physical education requirement that the honor student had neglected to fulfill. The dean told him that he had removed the F from his transcript. The University of Pennsylvania would not see Kneedler’s failing grade when he applied to its doctoral program. “It was a very gentlemanly conversation,” he recalls. “The dean treated me as an equal.” Kneedler later earned his doctorate from Penn.
Meanwhile, a friend of Kneedler’s, also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, had a very different experience at another institution. One night, the woman was smoking in her dorm room. Smoking was not against the rules, but her housemother disapproved. The housemother entered the woman’s room uninvited, and smacked her star student across the face. “It was really quite shocking,” says Kneedler. “She was treated like a child. That never would have happened at F&M.”
Perhaps F&M’s supportive culture helped smooth the path to coeducation. President Keith Spalding had long lobbied the Board to go coed, and they finally voted in favor of the move in January 1969. But there was little effort to prepare for the admission of women. Every dorm but Thomas Hall (then called “New Dorm,”) had been built for an all-male campus. Amenities for women were non-existent. But Kneedler reflects that, on balance, this might have been a good thing. “Instead of all the decisions being made for the women by men, the women drove the changes. Their influence was strongly felt.”
Coeducation affected some board members personally. Though trustee Hiram Ball originally opposed the admission of women, one of the first “coeds” to enroll was his daughter, transfer student Vicki Ball ’71. She later became an active alumna and the College’s first career director.
Coeducation brought two concerns for the faculty. Would women want new academic programs? And would the male faculty have to alter their behavior?
Even before coeducation, President Spalding had sought to improve the arts program. Before women, the arts were treated primarily as extracurricular activities -- the Green Room, chorus, orchestra, etc. But the College assumed that women would want to study the arts, and this gave Spalding the rationale he needed. As it turned out, men and women participated equally in F&M’s expanded arts curriculum. Coeducation benefitted them both.
As for the classroom, Kneedler remembers fondly the curmudgeonly chemistry professor, Fred (“Snake”) Snavely, famous for his pop quizzes. Whenever Snavely announced a surprise quiz, his students would hiss like snakes. The professor would write the quiz problems on the blackboard with one hand -- and use the other hand to make an obscene gesture at the class. “Needless to say,” says Kneedler drily, “Fred’s practice did not continue with the arrival of women.”