Unity House History



The following article was written by the College's Affirmative Action Officer Judy Kirmmse. The article, which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of Connecticut College Magazine, traces the origins of Unity House and offers a historical look at the College's ongoing quest to mirror the society it serves.

The Path To Unity: On Becoming a Community that Mirrors the World Outside

When, in 1909, Wesleyan University announced it would cease admitting females, the state of Connecticut was left with no institution where women could earn advanced degrees. Yet all across America, the suffrage movement was building. Although they wouldn't earn the right to vote until 11 years later, women were poised to leave behind the largely domestic role that up until then had defined their place in society.

And so it was that Connecticut College set out on the road of educating traditionally under-represented members of society. It is part of the path the College follows to this day. Most people on campus want to live and work in a community that mirrors the outside world, a world made up of men and women from different races, countries, classes, sexual orientations and religions; who have all sorts of abilities and talents; and who are of different ages.

This road, which winds through the increasingly complex maze of diversity, has had its share of potholes and unpaved stretches. Now, as we struggle to understand the modern-day challenges of building a unified community, it's time to take a backward look at the ground we have covered and the milestones we have passed. In a sense, this has become our history.

"They Have Not Come" | Finding Support | Civil Disobedience
"A Lighthouse, A Beacon..." | Other Voices
The Present | Future Directions

"They Have Not Come"

In the College's early decades, through both world wars, neither racial nor gender differences were issues for the institution. A letter from a country day school in Illinois to the Connecticut College secretary of admissions, written in 1923, and the response from our registrar, illustrate the tenor of the times.

Dear Madam:

A rather interesting situation has arisen here with regard to entering one of our girls in an Eastern College. Her father is a Southerner, and seems to have a marked aversion to having his daughter in a College where colored students are admitted. Never having had to meet this issue before, I knew of no other way to obtain information than by writing directly to you. What are the attitude and procedure of Conneticut [sic] with regard to the colored students? Thanking you much for any information, I am

Very truly yours,

The registrar's response:

Dear Madam:

Up to the present no colored student has been admitted, nor have we now any applications for future admission from that race. We have no rule forbidding their admission, they simply have not come.
Sincerely,

Records indicate that the first black student enrolled, majored in French and graduated in the Class of 1931. Another lone pioneer joined the Class of 1949, but did not graduate. During the '50s there were only six black students at the college, but the classes of 1959-1967 were all white. Not until 1966 did black students begin to enroll in increasing numbers, reaching 10 in 1968. From that point on until 1973, the number of black students in each class hovered around 10, with an increase to 19 in 1973.

An awareness that the college must become less insulated began to stir before the days of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s. Rosemary Park wrote in her Report of the President, 1946-1962, "It is nevertheless clear that new areas must be included in the usual course offerings if the College is to claim that it prepares students to live in tomorrow's world. Clearly some study of Africa is essential, not to the exclusion of American and European conditions but some background could be expected in view of the importance of these new countries.

Connecticut College for Women began to abandon homogeneity at a time when social earthquakes were shaking underfoot. It was clear that both larger numbers of minority students and men must be invited in. Yet how was an almost all-white college to attract students of color? In 1968 the members of the "Summer Planning Group" wrote: In its deliberations the Summer Planning Group has endorsed the proposition that a college or university can best achieve its goals if its student body reflects something of the diversity of the larger society. This report has already recommended one way of applying this principle at Connecticut College: the admission of men to our undergraduate program, the creation of a "fully coeducational college." But clearly the diversity of the larger society which our campus should reflect is not simply sexual. The proposition calls for colleges which include in their student bodies members of social, racial, and economic groups largely unrepresented until recently at Connecticut College and institutions with comparable standards. In May of that same year, The Day, New London's daily newspaper, announced, "Connecticut College will begin an 'all-out' program this fall to recruit Negro students, according to a college spokesman." The article details plans for this recruitment process. Also in 1968 the following appeared in The Day:

Despite the widely publicized scramble by American youth to gain admission to the nation's institutions of higher education, colleges and universities are intensifying rather than relaxing their own efforts to attract able students to their campuses. Probably the area of sharpest inter-institutional competition is the recruitment of Negro students. At Connecticut College, a quiet but determined effort has been under way for the past four years to encourage qualified black students to apply. "Let's face it," says Mrs. Jeannette B. Hersey, director of admissions, "as a selective women's college we are automatically, if erroneously, associated in the minds of many with the traditions of a white social elite. We must convince black students that we do want them, not to fulfill some kind of conscience quota, but because we welcome the intellectually excellent, regardless of race."

As these changes were implemented, the boundary between the campus and the greater society collapsed, and many students felt they had to pay as much attention to what was going on away from campus as they did on their studies. Katie O'Sullivan See '70 describes that period in the Connecticut College Alumni Magazine, Winter 1985-86:

We lived those years in different ways. For some, Vietnam, racial turbulence and the New Left challenge to American hegemony shaped a highly politicized approach to college. For others, the profound questioning of conventional morality, the uncertainty of sexual mores, and experimentation with hallucinogens and other "new" tools of insight (from derivatives of Eastern religion to variations on communal living) produced an intense involvement with the counterculture. For some, the impact of reading John Locke or Max Weber or Jean Paul Sartre and the discovery of mentors like Gertrude Noyes, or Melvin and Susan Woody, or William Meredith (to name a few of the many fine teachers who populate my memory) generated a concentration on the processes of intellectual growth. And for still others, the four years at Connecticut will be remembered as a series of mixers, bridge games and social activities on suitcase weekends at Yale, Wesleyan and Trinity, interrupted by classes and the disruption of small groups of political activists, hippies, and intellectuals. <

This turmoil reinforced the decision that the College also must change. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year students founded the Afro-American Society, marking a new sense of purpose and identity. In the May 1968 Connecticut College Alumnae News, Susan E. Johnson '71 expressed her sense of purpose so forcefully in an essay titled "We Dream the Impossible Dream," that it was printed with a long note from the editor to help all readers of the magazine gain perspective on her viewpoint.

In 1969 the Afro-American Society sponsored a major public conference on Black Womanhood, which seems now to be the perfect marker for that pivotal year in which the College became coed. Among the 13 eminent guests was Dr. Jewel Cobb, noted for her cancer research, who was to begin her tenure as dean of the college the following September.

In 1970, the College also began to diversify its curriculum. Two new courses were offered and announced by press releases: a course called "Black Music and Its Place in Contemporary Society," which was open to members of the New London community as well as CC students, and "The Black Church as a Revolutionary Institution." At that time the college also offered a course in the history of the Afro-American in North America and Afro-American literature. In February of that year Dr. James Comer spoke on the "Black Experience as American History."

In 1969, in the middle of this struggle to transform its identity, the college opened its doors to men. It seems ironic at first that this institution, established to educate women at a time when they had been excluded from male institutions, would decide to admit men. But according to Philip Jordan, former dean of the faculty, there was "a growing awareness among students and faculty on every campus that education of the whole person cannot be achieved within an unnatural framework."

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Finding Support

Similarly, when blacks were first seriously recruited and admitted to Connecticut College in 1970-71, Blackstone was turned into a predominantly black dormitory and the Afro-American Center. By 1973, the dorm was put back into the lottery, but black students wanted to be sure that they would still be housed in groups of 12 or more in the dorms in the central area and that they would retain 21 of the 42 spaces in Blackstone. It was at this time that Vinal Cottage became the new minority cultural center, and many students of color felt it was an asset that it was not in the middle of the campus. They needed to be able to get away, they said and be able to support each other.

What was life like at Connecticut College for those earliest black students? Their comments, from taped interviews with black students from Connecticut College, Wayne State University, Wesleyan and Yale in 1971, are revealing as much for what they imply as for what they say. The following are quotes from a few of the Connecticut College students, who had negative experiences to report along with the positive ones:

Female, Class of 1971: Lived in white dorm first and second year; had a black roommate for those two years. Moved in Blackstone for last two years. My roommate (black), however, had a totally bad dating time so that by her senior year she was very bitter and disgusted. I felt really close to some white girls in KB, my freshman dorm. I recall a very bad scene in the summer of 1970. A College gardener called out rudely (word deleted from transcript) to our car driving past his on the wide street near Branford and Crozier-Williams. The reason for his outburst was baffling to us.

Female, Class of 1974: When I came to CC I was so unhappy. It was an unfortunate experience to have to go through even though I knew white and black people. I became distrustful of the white girls in my dorm; I was unhappy there. I really didn't feel I could talk to them and had to keep things to myself.... All the professors turn to the one or two black students in class and want you to be the authority on black people. I don't think it's fair to me to have to teach the rest of the class in the "black experience" because it is exploiting me.

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Civil Disobedience

In the early '70s the majority of students at CC and elsewhere stopped being activists. As Dean Alice Johnson wrote in an article in The College Voice in October 1979:

Students realized that no matter how much they deplored the war, they were essentially helpless. Their government refused to listen. And as if by the snap of a finger, everything suddenly stopped. Students turned inward and many went off to do "their own thing": grow apples in Vermont; drive taxicabs; build log cabins; to run marinas; to make pottery ...There was little if any sign of national political interest. There was rather a return to serious academic pursuits ... There is more tension and anxiety in the student body today than I can remember having noted before...

But racial issues remained important on campus. On May 6, 1971, about 25 members of the Afro-American Society staged a sit-in in Fanning Hall shortly after midnight. They left the next morning after President Charles Shain promised that there would be 71 black students at the College by the opening of the 1971-72 school year and that the College would have a full-time black admissions officer by September 1.

As the '70s and '80s unfolded, the student body became more racially diverse, but the progress was uneven. In 1973, black students felt so isolated they pushed, unsuccessfully, for the creation of a separate Judiciary Board. And some students still felt the need to pressure the administration for increased minority student enrollments and more courses in the curriculum to reflect traditionally underrepresented groups. Asian/Asian American students began to be admitted in greater numbers in addition to blacks and Latinos, and international students also increased in number.

During this time, Unity House played a very important role on campus, and its role expanded along with the number of students of color. According to Janet Foster '80, a Return to College (RTC) student who became director of Unity House after her graduation, "Unity was first and foremost a place of refuge in its early days. There was an environment of support, a place to go for counsel, to have meetings, do presentations, and hold conferences. Programming was also important." Grissel Benitez Hodge '86 was her administrative assistant, and later, Unity director from 1986 to 1992, and several work-study students helped out. Together, they worked long hours.

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"A Lighthouse, a Beacon..."

One of Unity's greatest gifts was that it was able to expand its own definition, to be more inclusive as the College admitted students from different races and ethnicities. Unity began as a home away from home for blacks and Puerto Ricans, and because these students were successful in nurturing and sustaining each other, the expansion to other groups was possible," said Foster. "It has always been a place open to all students, American, foreign born, Asian, Latino and white."

As director, Foster tried to keep the door open, which was difficult because Vinal Cottage was isolated, and also because it was a residence for a small group of students. Looking back, Foster thinks of Unity House as "a lighthouse, a beacon. It was there to light the way for students of color, but also to attract the attention of white students to the other cultures represented at the College." Its role, in addition to being a place of succor, was to guide students of color into the white culture, to be a bridge across cultural divides, a conduit of goodwill between cultures. Foster believes that this will be necessary even as the number of students of color continues to increase. Students of color often said that they felt they had a mission at the College - to bring their culture into the mainstream and invite white students, often totally unaware of and uninitiated in any culture but their own, to come to understand these other ways of living, of knowing, of relating. Over the years they have introduced programming that focuses on each of the different cultures during a specific week or month of the academic year.

By 1986, a number of students believed that their attempts to push the College into a more visible commitment to increase the enrollment of students of color, hire more faculty and staff of color and take action to diversify the campus culture had run into one obstacle after another. "We tried to work within the existing structure," said Richard Greenwald '87. "Among many other actions over the course of more than a year, we met with the trustees and delivered a carefully prepared 30-page Statement of Expression, but the administrators didn't catch our sense of urgency." And so, on the evening of April 30, as students discussed their dilemma, 54 of them decided to try again what their predecessors had done in 1971: take over Fanning Hall. Late that evening they entered Fanning Hall armed with overnight supplies and bicycle chains to secure the door. The next day, May Day, when faculty and administrators came to work, they could not enter Fanning Hall. The Statement of Expression had become a Statement of Demands.

By the end of the day the peaceful event was over. The demands were deemed reasonable, and students and administrators agreed to work together. The administration would write an affirmative action plan, hire an affirmative action officer, begin a series of racial awareness workshops, diversify the curriculum, host a conference of black and Hispanic scholars, and set a goal of increasing minority enrollment in each entering class by two percent every two years until minority enrollment reflected the current composition of society in the United States. In addition, the budget for Unity House and the Office of Minority Affairs was increased.

Out of this process students created a new committee - the Minority Student Steering Committee (MSSC) - to monitor the administration's progress. Then the administration set to work to deliver what they had promised. A committee began writing the affirmative action plan; in 1987 the College hired an affirmative action officer; racism awareness workshops began that year and continued through 1994, reaching more than 200 faculty and staff; and the admissions office increased its efforts to enroll students of color.

"My whole life is different because of the lessons I learned from the process leading up to the takeover, "says Greenwald, who holds a masters degree in public policy from Columbia and is a prime mover for AmericaWorks, a New York City company that trains and places welfare recipients in jobs. "Working within the politics of a system, working as a team for a common goal, these are the things I now do every day." Charlie Chun '90 was a freshman at Conn the year after the Fanning Takeover. Having come from a very diverse high school, he was surprised to find that there was "too little diversity, both socially and academically," to make life stimulating at Conn. "I believe that Asians and Asian-Americans who grow up in predominantly white communities need college to be a place to develop camaraderie and a consciousness of who Asian-Americans were in the history of this country. If Asian-Americans don't experience this connection with their culture in college, they have an identity crisis later when the stakes are higher." Charlie became one of the founders of ASIA, the first organization for Asian/Asian-American students. It is now CCASA, an organization that is very successful in its programming and community building.

In 1988, President Claire Gaudiani implemented the Mellon Initiative for Multiculturalism in the Curriculum (MIMIC), which provided funding for faculty to revise existing courses or design new ones incorporating some aspect of study relating to traditionally underrepresented groups. The funding also paid for student researchers. By the end of the program, 28 courses had been created or revised. During the period from the fall of 1995 to the fall of 1996, 14 of these courses were taught. The move of Unity House to the center of campus ushered in the 1990s at Connecticut College.

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Other Voices

During the '70s, the campus was becoming more racially diverse, yet another area of difference was beginning to open up. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was required to be implemented by 1977, and Thomas Sheridan '74, director of personnel, was in charge of writing a plan to meet the requirements of Section 504 of that act. John Sharon '86, who helped organize the school's first Disability Day in 1985, says one of the things he has always hoped for is a school that is as diverse in terms of physical abilities as it is racially. "Physical disabilities remind us of who we are, of our potential. Being in a community that includes people with disabilities gives everyone a chance to be interdependent. Sometimes people focus on independence for people with disabilities, but interdependence is really much better for the human race."

In 1980, the Writing Center was established, and it became obvious that some of the students who were having difficulty with writing were very bright and could be articulate speakers. Until the early '80s, there was little recognition that adults could have learning disabilities, but in 1980-81, two Connecticut College students who had trouble writing were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Suddenly, the Writing Center became a haven for students with all sorts of learning disabilities, as well as those who simply needed occasional advice to improve their writing.

At the same time, with the aging population of the alumni body, the College faced a new need for accessibility. Alums in wheelchairs could not get into many of the buildings on campus. The Alumni Committee on College Accessibility was formed in 1985, and Theresa Ammirati, then director of the Writing Center, formed the complementary Campus Committee on College Accessibility. These committees began to explore both programmatic and physical accessibility.

The intervening 12 years saw much progress, but the task of making the entire campus accessible is not completed. There are two wheelchair-accessible rooms in Smith House, which permit access to two dining rooms and two living rooms. All buildings that were built or renovated during this time were made accessible, including the labs in the F.W. Olin Science Center and Hale Laboratory. Harkness Chapel and Palmer Auditorium have ramps, but they still lack accessible bathrooms. The coffee house and an all-night study in Larrabee also are accessible. The Plex, when current renovations are completed, will be accessible, as is the newly renovated College Center at Crozier-Williams.

Another form of diversity became visible in the late '80s, when gay and lesbian students formed the Gay Straight-Bi-Alliance. This group sought to offer support for the small number of students who were openly gay, lesbian or bi-sexual, as well as to educate the community about homosexuality. After a few years, when the students who had formed this group had graduated, the club disbanded, but it was followed by a similar group called The Village People. This club transformed itself into S.O.U.L, which seeks to advocate and educate, and which has a political agenda.

This year the dean of the college has formed a task force to investigate the quality of life for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual members of our community. The task force has interviewed members of S.O.U.L and has sent out an all-campus survey, which has not yet been tallied. Members of the task force have heard that a few students were "outraged" about receiving the survey and even encountered feelings that these issues should not be talked about in public. Clearly, the findings of this important task force, due at the end of the academic year, could point the way for more education and action. Another type of student who brings difference to the College is the Return to College Student. RTCs are students who have previously had two years of College but who then interrupted their education. Because they are often working full- or part-time while they are in school, these students take a reduced load. Often these older students are more outspoken and bring more experience into class discussions than their younger classmates. Their presence is definitely felt in the classroom. Ironically, some RTC students are inhibited by their classroom experience, especially at first. It sometimes takes a long time for them to believe that they have something of value to add in discussions. Said one RTC, a woman in her early 50s, "The students tend to treat me like a dinosaur, but an interesting dinosaur."

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The Present

In contrast to the indifference of the College registrar's 1923 letter about students of color, Lee Coffin, current dean of admission, testifies to the college's proactive approach to diversifying its student body. "We have one counselor who is in charge of affirmative action and another who does multicultural programming - sponsoring trips to campus by groups such as Upward Bound, for example. We all share the responsibility to identify prospective students of color within our recruiting territories and to visit high schools with a high percentage of students of color, whether those be inner-city public schools or prep schools."

In terms of building a unified or diverse community, the college is making progress but it still has a distance to travel: 12.1 percent of our student body are students of color and 10.3 percent of our faculty are African-, Latino-, Asian-, and Native American. In the 1996-97 academic year, international students number 133 and there are 97 RTCs. We are accommodating more students with both visible and invisible disabilities, even several who rely on wheelchairs.

Our destination, our goal of unity, raises a challenge of its own. How can we be united without blunting the edges of our differences? These differences prod our thinking, tell us who we are in contrast to one another, shake us out of indifference, spark new awarenesses and open up new worlds.

Shirelle McGuire, a senior psychology major from the Bronx, N.Y., reflected during the recent Eclipse Weekend, "I feel the college has come a long way throughout the years, especially with recruiting students of color. I also feel we have a long way to go. At one point, I was concerned that although we were recruiting students of color, they weren't a diverse group amongst themselves. It seemed as if many of the African-American students were all from the New York City area, for example." McGuire, who sings with the gospel choir, says "A lot of the students of color like it when white students want to participate in programs that they started. It's like saying, I want to learn something about what you're doing. Students have to take the first step."

Freida Veliz '98, the chair of Society Organized Against Racism (SOAR) also believes the college "has traveled part of the distance to achieving diversity." She says that more student interaction with the community off campus would introduce more diversity and multiculturalism into student life.

"Overall, I think the effort in making it a much more diverse community has worked, and it's so far, so good. But I definitely think we have a way to go. I think everyone is a little bit at fault. Everyone is kind of hesitant to spread their wings and be open to different experiences. Everyone is at fault when it comes to that, not one particular group."

Future Directions

The key to our future lies in our ability to understand and participate in relationships effectively. We're moving into an age of complexity, where relationships are central. Although we have made good progress toward our goal of bringing people from different backgrounds together on campus, this in itself does not make a thriving community. We don't want to end up with fragmentation: people clustering together with others who are similar. While we need to continue to increase the diversity of our student body, faculty and staff, the time has come to foster strong bonds among all who work and study at the college. This is no easy challenge: it comes at a time when our individual plates are full and getting fuller. But we will succeed; our future depends upon it. We have already begun. The president and the Board of Trustees recognize the importance of building these relationships.

Connecticut College places a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, and many of the people being considered this year for faculty positions have strengths bridging across disciplines. The Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA) stresses the relationship between a major field of study and a foreign language and culture. Faculty and students traveling in the Study Abroad/Teach Abroad (SATA) program experience the contrast between the first world and a developing country. Service learning takes students into the community, volunteering in a capacity that links to their academic coursework. A new representative committee has been formed to study and improve the quality of staff life. A series of group discussions (Race Relations at Connecticut College: A Dialogue) has begun that brings students of different races together for two hours a week for seven weeks to explore the ways they have experienced and been affected by racism in their lives. Participating students will be trained to facilitate other sessions in the fall, when faculty and staff will be invited to participate. The Citizens Forum for Achieving Results (C-FAR) in New London Schools is a new program linking the college with the local public schools; together the college and the local community will explore scholastic achievement success stories in other urban centers.

Ultimately, what we are working toward is a truly civil society, one based on respect for oneself and others that has grown from a deep understanding of what it is to be a member of the human race, the one and only race, in all its different forms and manifestations. We also are working toward a climate and community that unmistakably reflect the word chosen by the students of color who built the new multicultural center in 1973 - UNITY.

Contact information:
Phone:
860-439-2628
Fax:
860-439-5461
Email ajeffers@conncoll.edu

Unity House
Connecticut College
270 Mohegan Avenue
New London, CT 06320