There is arguably no more defining feature of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and no more interesting topic to explore, than the coordinate system. For generations it has informed and influenced students and graduates as they navigate collegiate life and go into the world. In recent months, the Board of Trustees has taken steps to examine the meaning of coordinate, its inclusive and exclusive processes, and the ways in which change for the institution can ensure that all students are provided equal opportunities. The April 2019 release of the Board’s Report and Action Steps on the coordinate system is best understood within the context of its history. The coordinate structure has changed through the decades, as has the lived experience. Every effort has been made to ensure that the information here is as accurate as possible, including consulting HWS Archives, faculty and staff, as well as past editions of The Herald and other written histories of the Colleges including Hobart and William Smith: The History of Two Colleges by Warren Hunting Smith, the nephew of William Smith.
A Coordinate Beginning
On Dec. 13, 1906, a deed of gift was signed providing Hobart College for men with $475,000 for the creation of a “coordinate” college for women. The gift, equal to about $13.5 million today, came as the result of a long-standing plan by local Geneva philanthropist William Smith to create a women’s college in Geneva. His generosity led to both the creation of one college — William Smith, and the saving of another — Hobart, which had for some years faced financial challenges.
William Smith was deeply influenced by the local suffragist movement. While he had considered creating an academy to educate women, it was after consultation with friends like Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anna Botsford Comstock L.H.D. 1930 that he decided to found a college to educate women broadly, not just vocationally. Comstock, who was a member of the advisory board for the new College and later joined the Hobart and William Smith Board, played a key role in the debate. “It was left to me to decide whether it should be coeducational or co-ordinate,” writes Comstock in her autobiography. “I decided on the latter because, with an old institution like Hobart, I felt coeducation would so change it as to alienate the alumni body. I had always been, and shall always be, a believer in coeducation. But circumstances alter cases, and I am sure that my decision was wise in the case of William Smith College….” It was decided that Hobart and William Smith students would receive largely the same education, sharing classroom facilities, faculty, a president and Board of Trustees, but they would not take classes together.
The first joint commencement was held in 1922 on the celebration of Hobart’s Centennial, also William Smith’s 11th graduation. Organized to take advantage of the “great number of events on the program,” according to a July 17, 1922, issue of The Hobart Herald, the decision became tradition and signaled the beginning of a new student experience. Each year, Hobart and William Smith alternated which College received its diplomas first. By 1942, baccalaureate ceremonies were also combined.
The two Colleges became more closely linked during World War II. Facing declining Hobart enrollment because of the draft, the Colleges entered into an agreement with the Navy’s V-12 College Training Program, which brought 1,000 soldiers to campus over the course of two years. Men were housed in traditional William Smith dormitories while women lived in smaller spaces like fraternity houses. Because it was no longer affordable to offer duplicate classes for men and women, students of both Colleges began taking classes together. By 1938, all classes were coed with the first joint course catalogue published in 1940. In 1942, The Hobart Herald dropped “Hobart” to become The Herald, representing both colleges.
In 1943, President John Milton Potter elevated William Smith from a department under Hobart to equal standing with the men’s college, giving the Colleges the name “Colleges of the Seneca.” That name, used primarily in legal documents and for the charter in New York State, remained in effect until 2010 when the Board unanimously voted to change the legal name to Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Each college had its own yearbook through 1961 — Hobart’s Echo/Echo of the Seneca and William Smith’s Pine. The first joint yearbook, the Echo and Pine, was published in 1962.
In 1972, 50 years after the first joint Commencement was held, students voted to receive their diplomas from their classmates, regardless of their affiliated College. The practice remained with some alterations, depending on the wishes of the graduating classes. In the late 1980s, the tradition of processing and graduating by respective College returned. In 2016, as part of a student-driven initiative, students voted to receive their diplomas in alphabetical order rather than by College. Voting has happened each year since, with students deciding each year to continue the practice.
Athletics began in the early days of both Hobart and William Smith with scrimmages and intercollegiate matches organized by students. Dr. George J. Sweetland 1897, Hobart’s first Athletic Director, arrived in the fall of 1915 to lead the new Department of Athletics. Nineteen years later, Marcia Winn L.H.D. ’70 became the first Athletic Director of William Smith College. The passing of Title IX legislation in 1972 helped to solidify the importance of women’s athletics at the Colleges and across the nation. Today, Hobart and William Smith have two of the top athletics programs in the nation (see p. 15).
In 1993, with the competition for students accelerating and in an effort to streamline the recruitment process, what had previously been two separate admissions offices — one for Hobart and one for William Smith — were combined. This new enrollment management model made admissions traveling, recruitment and reporting more efficient and placed the office under a dean of admissions and financial aid. The physical offices merged in 2006 with the creation of the Thomas Poole Family Admissions Center.
A Culture of Respect
In 2014, a committee was assembled to “examine, research and offer recommendations designed to elicit important positive change” on a wide range of topics from athletics to the Greek system, and from coordinate practices to community spaces. The Culture of Respect Steering Committee included 22 members of the Colleges’ community, led by its co-chairs — Professor Emeritus and former Interim President Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. ’12 and former Director of Admissions and Assistant Vice President for Institutional Advancement Mara O’Laughlin ’66, L.H.D. ’13.
Published in 2015, the Culture of Respect Report states: “the notion of gender and concepts of gender identity are in profound transition today in our society.” The report notes conversations in the community that “argued on behalf of our transgender students, asserting that there is no place in the system for them,” while equally hearing “strong support for a system that purposefully and deliberately empowers both men and women.” The report acknowledges the Colleges’ academic programs that encourage the study of gender and equity — like Women’s Studies, Men’s Studies and LGBT Studies — while also noting the changing definition of gender identity: “it’s a continuum, not a bipolarity; a continuum with a long and complex middle.” The report determines that “the coordinate system is uniquely structured to explore these issues and the needs of every person on that continuum,” ultimately recommending that, “the coordinate system should not be eliminated or abandoned but be contemporized.”
Concurrent to the Culture of Respect Report and as part of a required assessment of the Colleges’ operations and educational approach, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education issued its assessment that the Colleges had fulfilled all standards and characteristics of excellence. The Middle States review notes: “The coordinate system is a clear point of distinction for Hobart and William Smith and contributes to the values of its educational outcomes.” The review also “…encourages the Colleges to find additional ways to explore the purpose and value of the coordinate system to articulate further the distinctiveness of Hobart and William Smith.”
Following the publication of the Culture of Respect report and the Middle States review, in 2015 President Emeritus Mark D. Gearan L.H.D. ’17, P’21 asked the Alumni and Alumnae Associations’ Executive Committees to examine ways to “contemporize” coordinate. A position statement authored by the Executive Committees was sent to President Gearan and the Board. It reads, in part: “…appreciation of the ‘other’ has always been a guiding tenet for enabling the development of Hobart and William Smith students. Vital to this tenant are values of inclusion, equity, empathy, respect, leadership and community. The Associations firmly believe that upholding this tenant and enhancing these values are essential as the Colleges look to contemporize the coordinate tradition.” A list of specific recommendations from the Executive Committees’ position statement was presented to the Student Experience Committee of the Board in early 2019.
Since 2010, the Office of Student Life and the deans of Hobart and William Smith have offered students and alums the opportunity to be recognized by their selected name, gender and pronoun, and to affiliate with their College of choice. The practice was codified in the 2015-2016 Community Standards. The Offices of the Deans and the Office of Student Life have supported numerous students and alums through this practice.
In the summer of 2018, 42 members of the faculty “who believe it is time to move toward uniting the Colleges and ending the coordinate system” signed a letter to Interim President McGuire and the Board of Trustees. The letter recommends a “community-wide conversation” about the viability of the coordinate system with emphasis on “the voices of transgender and non-binary students and graduates… [and a] celebration of the rich history of the Colleges and an optimistic vision for the future.”
Just after the faculty letter was made public, a Facebook group was organized by graduates to share their perspectives. The group, “HWS Coordinate Values,” includes members of the graduate community, faculty, staff and current students. Discussions began in September 2018 and continue today.
In Oct. 2018, The Herald published an edition that includes eight first-person accounts from transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming identifying/questioning students and alums that detail their experiences within the coordinate system, with some supporting coordinate and others calling for a new structure.
At its fall 2018 meeting and after more than a year of discussion, the Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming the Board’s commitment “to the coordinate heritage and mission of Hobart and William Smith Colleges” while also recognizing that “historic structures, policies and procedures” must change to meet the needs of students. The Board of Trustees tasked the Student Experience Committee of the Board to create “specific recommendations that will adapt our coordinate construct to ensure that all students are welcomed and supported.” The Board asked that those recommendations be delivered by the April 2019 Board meeting.
In a letter to the entire HWS community on Oct. 29, 2019, Chair of the Board Thomas S. Bozzuto ’68, L.H.D. ’18 wrote: “The Board recognizes that for many, our coordinate nature is a source of strength and pride. Emerging from the suffragist movement and ensuring that women have equal access to opportunities, our coordinate mission has influenced generations of Hobart and William Smith graduates to consider gender as they navigate the world. It is also evident that in order for the Colleges to remain relevant into the 21st century and to embrace expanding notions of gender, historic structures, policies and procedures that have existed for decades must undergo change. To meet the needs of all students, Hobart and William Smith must evolve. It is the belief of the Board of Trustees that we must do so without losing the core values and the heritage that define us….”
The Student Experience Committee held multiple sessions on campus to discuss the issue with faculty, staff and students, retaining a national expert on inclusion and diversity to guide dialogue. In addition, the Committee consulted with the leadership of the Alumni and Alumnae Associations and surveyed the entire alum network, gathering data from thousands of graduates about their views on the issue. They also established a dedicated email address so that anyone could reach the committee to share perspectives. All of this information was used to generate the recommendations that came forward to the Board of Trustees. The Board approved those recommendations as policy on April 6, 2019.
Moving Forward with Coordinate
The Board of Trustees’ policy reaffirms a commitment to coordinate along with a range of near- and long-term action steps designed to contemporize the system. Among the policy’s initiatives is a requirement that all new members of the HWS community — faculty, staff and students — learn about the coordinate college system, including its traditions and importance. The administration is also tasked with providing a new degree option to students and alums, creating three diploma choices: Hobart College, William Smith College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Other initiatives include a review of all forms and materials to ensure gender-neutral language and the cultivation of a more inclusive environment through the creation of an LGBTQ+ alum group and the reimagining of student Orientation practices.
Many of the policies approved by the Board of Trustees are already in action while others are in various states of progress under the leadership of President Joyce P. Jacobsen.
“The initiatives and the tasks put forth by the Board are, in my estimation, designed to ensure that all members of our community understand and explore the Colleges’ history and traditions, as they also provide students and alums more options and greater autonomy in how they are identified and affiliated,” says Jacobsen. “We are working to bring this policy to reality and I’m grateful for the good advice, direction and perspectives of many in the community who are helping.”