February 13, 2020

by President Joyce P. Jacobsen

Hobart and William Smith, with their coordinate tradition, present a unique opportunity to students, faculty, and staff to consider the roles of gender in an educational setting. The entwined history of the Colleges and the ever-changing nature of their coordinate relationship reflect the continually transmuting roles of gender in societal and educational settings.

Hobart and William Smith have increased the level of coeducational activities over time even as certain areas of the Colleges continue to allow for single-sex (or single-gender) settings. Single-sex settings include the option of single-sex housing, single-sex sports (in keeping with the NCAA structures for sports), and single-sex affinity groups, including fraternities, sororities, and other voluntary organizations that can exist to support activities primarily for one gender (and often for allies as well). Such organizations can include intersectional relationships, such as spaces for men of color, women of color, queer students of color, and many other possible groupings. The Colleges continue to support and encourage students to interact using various affinity dimensions as parts of their social lives, recognizing the importance for many of maintaining both separate spaces and intersectional spaces in developing and maintaining personal and group identities.

Other separations exist to a partial degree. For example, Hobart and William Smith attempt to provide flexibility in non-gendered bathrooms, as well as changing rooms and other quasi-private spaces. The Colleges also attempt to provide staff of both genders in some areas, most notably the deans of the Colleges. While no one dean position must be of a specific gender, Hobart and William Smith attempt to provide both male-identifying and female-identifying deans in case a student feels more comfortable in a given situation working with a particular gender identity. Per the recommendations of the Board of Trustees, students now have the choice of selecting a particular dean with whom to work.

Some have asked why any separate social spaces should continue to exist and be sanctioned by Hobart and William Smith. Indeed, many other separations are not authorized by the Colleges, including all academic activities as well as all employed positions, whether faculty, staff, or student.

The answer is that gender continues to be a primary distinguisher and signifier. This is a positive statement rather than a normative statement, describing how things are rather than how we may or may not want them to be. As such, it is important for students to understand the roles of gender intellectually as well as in their lived experience, whether they embrace the binary, reject the binary, or are not fully comfortable that they understand the binary. This is true for other characteristics as well, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, and sexual orientation. Hobart and William Smith strive to increase diversity and inclusion so that all students may understand the roles of these characteristics in contemporary society even though the Colleges do not sanction any form of discrimination based on these characteristics.

For all of these distinguishers, it is also important to understand the intersectionality of various categories. Categories create overlaid, overlapping systems of discrimination, advantage or disadvantage, and privilege. But in order to understand intersectionality, it is also important to understand difference. For example, research shows that dialogue occurs differently in single-gender groups than in mixed-gender groups. Persons may become more aware of this difference if they interact in both types of settings. Similarly, political outcomes, allocational decisions, and social choices can vary systematically based on the gender (and other aspects of) composition of the group. We also see continuing levels of partial or complete gender segregation in many aspects of society, including choice of major, occupational choice, and voluntary activities. Why these segregations occur is a continuing question of interest to social scientists, and ignoring gender does not make segregation go away.

For students, faculty, and staff who reject the binary, does the coordinate structure of Hobart and William Smith serve as a barrier to full social and political participation? In my estimation, no. For faculty and staff, there are no structures related to the binary by design, although faculty and staff generally think it is important to have gender representation on committees and task forces (as well as representation by other categories) and the faculty bylaws stipulate some faculty committees have mixed representation.

For students, the analogy of the U.S. two-party political system comes to mind. A person may choose to be an independent rather than join a political party. This means they have neither the costs nor the benefits of belonging to a party, but they can still be enfranchised in the political system. Just as in states where an independent may register to vote in a specific primary election, but not both primaries, a student who identifies as nonbinary may choose to opt into either Hobart or William Smith student governments, and may also participate in any joint activities of the two governments.

Through full implementation of the Board of Trustees’ coordinate action plan passed last spring, all other official social interactions related to the coordinate college tradition are being opened up to participation by all students, starting with orientation and continuing through commencement. With last year's vote by the trustees to allow for a joint diploma option as well as continuing the separate diploma options, students may choose how they want to represent themselves. Students may also change their mind over time as the role of gender in their lives changes for them. Here is a normative statement: Gender should never serve as a binding constraint on anyone; rather, gendering should serve as a vehicle for creativity and reflection as students and alums alike consider what gender, or absence of gender, means to them.

To the degree that coordinate, or coordination, also implies cooperation, the model of a pair of colleges where students support each other within and across the Colleges is also appealing. Numerous opportunities for cooperation and mutual learning present themselves daily. In addition, a number of significant upcoming anniversaries will give all of us the opportunity to reflect upon gender and increased opportunity for all persons: The centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment in August 2020; Elizabeth Blackwell’s 200th birthday in February 2021; the 50th anniversary of Title IX in June 2022; and the Hobart College bicentennial in 2022.

The coordinate tradition and the various student, alumni, and alumnae responses to it are ever-changing. This is a healthy dialectic that causes HWS community members to reflect on gender and its intersectionality with other aspects of difference. My reflection is that the legacy of Hobart and William Smith's coordinate tradition is one of broad inclusion; we can celebrate it as we also seek to expand its meaning. It is a unique situation that encourages greater understanding through allowing for a spectrum of degrees of difference that can vary for a person over a given day, a year, a college career, and a lifetime.