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The seeds of the Harvard-Radcliffe merger can be traced to the 1882 charter of Radcliffe's predecessor, the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, founded in 1879. This charter declared the society's purpose, "[to promote] the education of women," and empowered its officials to transfer "the whole or any part of its funds or its property to the President and Fellows of Harvard College whenever the same can be so done as to advance the purpose stated above...." Similar wording appears in the 1894 charter that created Radcliffe College as a degree-granting institution. Between 1893 and 1894, Radcliffe tried to merge with Harvard; the Society had collected $100,000 "as a kind of dowry, so that Harvard would take us on," says longtime Radcliffe archivist Jane Knowles. "But Harvard refused. They were not interested in coeducation. So Radcliffe was chartered as an independent college. There was an alumnae rebellion at the time--many wanted to be part of Harvard, not an independent college. In a way, the Harvard recalcitrants of 1894 delayed the merger for a century."
During that century, there were also reluctant souls at Radcliffe. In 1970, Radcliffe president Mary I. Bunting pushed for merger with Harvard, and had the backing of Helen Homans Gilbert '36, then chair of the Radcliffe Board of Trustees. But they were in the minority. The Radcliffe College Alumnae Association (RCAA) formed a committee to study the merger idea and put the kibosh on the plan. "They didn't think Harvard was ready, and didn't trust Harvard," says Knowles.
Much changed in the world inside and outside the academy after 1970: the women's movement and the growing female presence in business, the professions, and scholarly life; the creation of women's-studies and gender-studies programs; the continued growth of the Bunting Institute and Schlesinger Library, as well as of Radcliffe's endowment, from $35 million in 1976 to about $200 million today; coeducational housing and near-parity in College admissions for men and women; the 1971 and 1977 agreements, delegating (in part) responsibility for classroom instruction and management of the House system to Harvard; the founding of Radcliffe's Murray Center and Public Policy Institute. The ground had shifted greatly by 1991, when Derek Bok retired as Harvard's president and the RCAA honored him with the Radcliffe Medal--the only one ever bestowed on a male. Bok remembers suggesting, in his speech at that occasion, "that Radcliffe leave undergraduate education with a sense of satisfaction that all its objectives had been fulfilled. It could then create the finest center for research on women in the world. As I recall, the reception was mixed. But given our history, the outcome was always pretty clear. The question was one of timing."
And timing surely affected the nature of the merger terms. "If there had been a merger in 1970, it would have been a submerger," says Jane Knowles. "There wouldn't have been much of Radcliffe left." The current agreement means that, in her words, "in a sense, the original desires of the founders have come to fruition."
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