Fifty years ago, Northfield Mount Hermon celebrated its first year as a coed institution. The world was changing. So the school did, too.
Story by Jennifer Sutton
Images courtesy of NMH archives
The news broke on a Monday in October 1970. “Coeducation!” proclaimed a headline in The Bridge, the student newspaper, a few days later. The accompanying photo showed a crowd of students clapping and grinning at one another with “palpable glee,” says Northfield Mount Hermon Archivist Peter Weis ’78.
That Monday, school leaders had announced that Northfield and Mount Hermon schools would merge, taking a decisive step toward “electrifying change,” as a letter to The Bridge later described it. The two schools, founded by D.L. Moody in the late 1800s, had existed separately for close to a century: Northfield for girls and Mount Hermon for boys. While they had been coupled under one board of trustees for more than half of that time, they possessed their own histories and cultures, their own curricula and faculty. But as the 1960s drew to a close, fewer students and their parents were interested in single-sex education. If the two schools wanted to safeguard their future, and continue educating students to serve and lead in the years ahead, they had to reimagine themselves.
So in the fall of 1971, school trustees and administrators officially launched Northfield Mount Hermon, a united and coed institution. The merger was “an inevitable reaction to the circumstances of the times,” says Betsy Compton ’72, who was part of the first class to graduate from NMH and would later become an NMH trustee.
When Compton and her classmates started high school in the fall of 1968, the country was reeling from the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the confrontations between police and protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the ongoing trauma of the Vietnam War. Beyond Northfield and Mount Hermon, high school and college students were joining anti-war protests and taking over school buildings with demands for racial justice and gender justice. There was a “groundswell of change in the air,” says Reid Whitlock ’72, who graduated with Compton. “There was a general feeling among students that they possessed collective power that could not have been imagined a few years earlier.”
On campus, Northfield and Mount Hermon leaders saw the merger as a way to usher in a more progressive social environment. At the first joint meeting with faculty from both schools, Art Kiendl, the head of Mount Hermon, described the existential choice they were facing in provocative terms: “It is a matter of good people who care and dare vs. those who want to stop the world and get off.”
Compton, Whitlock, and the rest of the Class of 1972 were thrust into a strange, shape-shifting scenario: They had enrolled at one kind of school and would be the first to graduate from a remarkably different one. That was 50 years ago. What do they think now?
“AS STUDENTS, we had no clue how much analysis and questioning went into making a decision of that magnitude,” says Compton, looking back at Northfield and Mount Hermon’s transition into a single coed school. “As teenagers, we thought, ‘Of course, let’s do it, what’s the big deal?’”
It was an extraordinarily big deal. And bythe fall of 1970, when Compton and her classmates were juniors, it felt almost preordained. For decades, Northfield and Mount Hermon students had been riding buses back and forth between the two campuses to attend dances and sports events together and perform in joint plays and concerts. By 1970, “coordinate” academics — girls and boys in the same classroom — had grown to include nearly a fifth of the student body.
By the late 1960s, single-gender private schools were falling out of favor across the country.
And single-gender boarding schools were falling out of favor. Howard Jones, president of the corporation that oversaw Northfield and Mount Hermon, described their “plight” in a message to alumni: “Enrollments are down. Costs are up. Money is scarce.” Within three years in the late 1960s, the National Association of Boarding Schools counted 20 single-gender private schools that merged to become 10 coed institutions, according to The New York Times. An additional 20 private boys’ schools started enrolling girls in the same time period, and six boarding schools in the Northeast shut down altogether. Northfield and Mount Hermon’s peer schools were leaning toward coeducation, too: Choate (boys) and Rosemary Hall (girls), and Loomis (boys) and Chaffee (girls) both merged in 1971, the same year that NMH did. All-male Exeter began admitting girls that same year.
Northfield and Mount Hermon leaders had begun planning in 1968, bringing in an educational consultant to help them consider the options. Weis speculates that they might have considered keeping Northfield independent. “It was arguably the best girls’ school around, so it probably could have made it on its own,” he says. “But Mount Hermon was hemorrhaging potential students. Parents were looking for coeducational schools for their sons.”
In the spring of 1970, before the merger decision, Northfield and Mount Hermon administrators hosted a “Day of Concern,” inviting students and faculty to weigh in about the future of the schools. “We went through all these discussions, but the decision had probably already been made,” recalls Bisa Williams ’72. After the merger was announced, the schools followed up with a “Day of Planning” to allow students and faculty to offer ideas about the monumental task ahead. How best to combine two different academic programs, work programs, and class schedules? How to blend two different sets of traditions, clubs, affinity groups, and social activities? Committees, task forces, and a “Council for One School” were formed. Debates took place. Who would move into which dorms? How would adults govern boys and girls living side-by-side 24/7 instead of in highly regimented and limited time periods? How much would the busing system have to expand to accommodate students traveling between the two campuses all day every day instead of just on weekends? (One creative soul suggested building a mini-subway system under the Connecticut River.)
Amid the planning hubbub, many students were excited about leaving gender segregation behind. “I had grown up in coed elementary and middle schools — a lot of us had — so the fact that our high school was just boys started to seem really strange,” says Brad Graves ’72. Living on two different campuses made interactions feel “stilted and contrived,” adds Deidra Dain ’72. To communicate — to make plans to get together on the weekend, for example — girls and boys were still writing letters back and forth just as their predecessors had done years earlier.
Students considered themselves more progressive than that old-fashioned protocol would suggest; they were part of the Woodstock generation, even if they’d been too young to attend the iconic 1969 event. Many teachers and administrators felt that way, too. The schools hosted a teach-in following the Kent State assassinations in the spring of 1970 and invited students from other local schools to attend. Two years earlier, Black students on both campuses had gathered and marched, with support from school leaders, to protest the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Graves remembers a Mount Hermon presentation about drug use in which Kiendl, the headmaster, spoke frankly about the problem among students. “It was stunning,” Graves says. “In our parents’ generation, the tendency was to sweep things under the rug. It was refreshing to hear an adult confront those issues.”
The merger, however, was not completely welcomed by all. It felt like a “gut punch” to many Northfielders, says Williams. And while Lauren Boulware ’72 describes the overall student-life dynamic of the separate schools as “not getting the experience of a normal childhood or being a normal teenager,” she also felt deep appreciation for her single-gender academic life. “Northfield was like an incubator,” Williams says. “It felt safe. We could challenge each other and talk loud and be smart and relax. When you introduced guys into the room, at least back then, suddenly there would be a self-consciousness that didn’t feel great.”
Graves remembers a handful of Mount Hermon students who also were unenthusiastic; their parents were alumni and wanted the school they had known back in the day to stay the same. But most of the feelings of loss came from Northfield. Celia Popper ’72 was torn. On one hand, she says, “I was worried that our community would blow apart. And that did happen to some extent. The intimacy of our little world was fractured.” At the same time, she knew the merger “was going to be a good thing” in the long run. “It was going to open us up to the real world,” she says.
‘‘Coeducation is a matter of people who care and dare vs. those who want to stop the world and get off.”
WHEN STUDENTS RETURNED to school in the fall of 1971, “it was like we all leaped and assumed the net would appear,” says Ellyn Spragins ’72. Dain recalls that “some people felt it was chaotic, and it was, but it was also really exciting.” A couple hundred Northfield students, including Dain and Spragins, opted to move to the Mount Hermon campus. Dain landed the job of social chair and started advocating for girls and boys to be allowed to gather in the same dorm room on a Saturday night. The new policy was approved, which, at the time, was “huge,” Dain says. “We felt very empowered, like we were creating a new reality. But at the same time, it seemed like we were just trying to have a normal life.”
It didn’t feel so normal for Whitlock, who relocated from Mount Hermon to Northfield; he calls that first year “disorienting.” Even though the presence of boys at Northfield and girls at Mount Hermon was accepted, he says, “the ‘other sex’ dorms, those reserved for the newcomers, seemed a bit like island fortresses rather than fully integrated parts of campus.”
Also disorienting were the campus traditions — both official and casual ones — that either evolved or faded away. Northfield’s “May Queen” ritual vanished, but its Mountain Day endured and expanded to include all of Mount Hermon. Whitlock recalls that boys accustomed to pick-up ice hockey games on the “real rink” at Mount Hermon were not interested in skating on Northfield’s Perry Pond, and “no self-respecting boys would walk arm-in-arm after a Sage Chapel event as Northfield girls always did,” he says.
On the plus side, Compton points out, Northfield’s dress code disappeared. “In my freshman year, we couldn’t wear pants to class, but by senior year, we could wear whatever we wanted,” she says. No more white dresses every Sunday; instead, there were bell-bottom jeans that dragged on the ground and denim skirts that got shorter and shorter. “The faculty thought we looked like slobs, but suddenly, we were with the times, and it felt completely different,” Compton says.
Academically, there was little change. Everyone was used to small classes, high expectations, and teachers who innovated and pushed. Boulware recalls that the boys tried to dominate in a few of her upper-level courses, but “we had some super-smart girls,” she says. “Usually the smartest kid in the class was a girl.” Compton remembers a notoriously gruff English teacher on the Mount Hermon campus who seemed to soften after girls showed up in his classroom. “Some of us found out when his birthday was, and we got him a cake, and he was kind of taken aback,” she says. “In all his years of teaching, nothing like that had ever happened.”
A few years after NMH went coed, all-male Andover, Hotchkiss, and St. Paul’s schools followed suit and began admitting girls. Lawrenceville and Deerfield remained all-male until the late 1980s, with considerable resistance at Deerfield when the school went coed in 1989. For a short time, Deerfield students and alumni adopted the same “Better dead than coed” rallying cry that had circulated at Dartmouth when women began enrolling there in 1972.
In contrast, Reid Whitlock says, Northfield and Mount Hermon leaders were open to progress. During that momentous first school year, in 1971 and 1972, “it felt as if the manual on how to coeducate was being written and revised as it was being implemented,” he says. Looking back, Whitlock says he’s “in awe” of what school leaders accomplished — “their excellent sense of timing, their judicious use of funds to implement their decisions, and their institutional commitment to the success of what was, at the time, a huge strategic shift in direction.”
Celia Popper calls that year “a piece of history.” She says, “NMH did what it did because the world was changing. And we were there when it happened.” [NMH]