Inclusion and Gender: Obstacles and Opportunities

This is the second in a series of summer blog posts on obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion. Subsequent posts will focus on political and religious beliefs, and economic inequality. Previous post is here.


Wesleyan began an experiment with co-education in the late 19th century that lasted until 1912. At that time, alumni groups put pressure on the administration to return to the status quo embraced by the all-male schools with which the university compared itself. In reaction, a more adventurous group of alumni joined to help found Connecticut College as an institution for the education of women.

In 1968, at a time when many schools were considering co-education, Wesleyan began admitting women as transfer and exchange students and two years later admitted first-year female students for the first time since 1909. I began as a freshman in the fall of 1975, shortly after those students had graduated. By then, in just those few years, co-education had made great strides, so much so that I wasn’t aware of how recently women had become part of campus culture. Looking back, many of my women friends were doubtless more aware than I of the barriers to inclusion that still existed for female students – and for students of color, and gay, lesbian and trans students. There was certainly an active feminist movement on campus, but (as I recall) the primary focus was on global issues of patriarchy with some activists taking on local issues of campus discrimination and sexual harassment.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of efforts on college campuses to eradicate discrimination on the basis of any identity affiliation – be it race, gender, or sexual orientation. Furthermore, students have rightly insisted that the curriculum become more inclusive so that issues related to under-represented groups are reflected in more of the courses we teach. As a teacher and as a university president, I see how this has broadened our work in a wide variety of fields. Sometimes the challenges of curricular inclusion are substantial as we move resources from some traditional areas to newer ones – it’s economically irresponsible just to keep adding things without trimming. The discussions around these topics, although sometimes challenging, have led to a broadening of what we mean by liberal education.

Over the last few years there has been increasing awareness that the oldest barrier to gender inclusion, violence, is still a major issue on American university campuses. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attack – from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially rape, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Although at Wesleyan there are usually only a handful of reports of sexual violence each year, each one is extremely painful and leaves a scar on the individual and on the community. Furthermore, we know how under-reported these crimes are across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. We have convened task forces and worked together to make it easier to report these incidents and to be confident in the process that would bring alleged assailants to a fair, effective judicial process. Dean Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) and team will be issuing an annual report, as they regularly do, detailing our most recent changes in this regard before the beginning of the school year.

Violence of any kind has no place on our campus, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it plays on social stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. We applaud groups active across the country, like Know Your IX, which are calling on students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with our mission to promote progressive liberal arts education for all.

Wesleyan’s history with co-education has gone through different stages. Our experiment in the late 19th and early 20th century was truncated, but it did plant seeds that would be harvested later on. The women who came to campus from the late 1960s on have worked to create an educational environment free from discrimination. There have been moments of pain and frustration, but we are dedicated to continuing the progress toward genuine inclusion.

We honor that history and extend it as we take on with renewed energy the project to eradicate sexual and gender violence from our university. We do so not because of political correctness or issues of liability. We do so because freedom from gender and sexual violence is essential to our mission as a community of learning.