Nancy Weiss Malkiel joined the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor in history in 1969, the same year that women were first admitted to Princeton on track to graduate. From 1982 to 1986, she served as the founding master of Mathey College. From 1987 to 2011, she served as Dean of the College. She currently serves as a professor of history emeritus. Malkiel is the author most recently of “‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation,” a study of the decisions that went into coeducation at elite institutions of higher education in the period from 1969 to 1974.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Nancy Malkiel: I joined the Princeton faculty in 1969, the same year that undergraduate women came to Princeton. I was a graduate student at Harvard — I was teaching sections of a course led by my thesis advisor — and at that point, the way people [and] the way institutions hired faculty was different from the way it works today. Today, of course, jobs are advertised and you apply and so on. At that point what happened was that the faculty members leading searches, in this case at Princeton, would call their friends at Harvard, Yale, a handful of other places and say, ‘this is what we’re looking for, who have you got?’
Frank Craven, who was leading the search for an assistant professor in modern American history at Princeton, called my advisor and said, ‘who have you got?’ They wanted to hire an assistant professor in modern American history who could also do some teaching in African American history — I was writing a dissertation in African American history. My advisor came to class and said to me, ‘I’ve recommended you for a job at Princeton’ and we both laughed because there were no women at Princeton. He said, ‘but it would be good for them to have to consider it.’ So I was invited to come for an interview. I wasn’t looking for a job but I figured ‘sure, I’ll go.’
The chair of the department, a formidable figure named Lawrence Stone, said, ‘it’s not that we have a policy against hiring women. It’s that nobody’s ever suggested it before.’ So I talked to practically everybody in the department. I did not realize then how difficult it is. When candidates for assistant professor appointments normally come, the search committee spends time with them, but getting other people to come and see them is really hard.This time around, they’d never seen a candidate like this. Everybody in the department, all of the American historians, came to lunch. Everybody in the department of medieval history, African history, European history, you name it, came to talk to me in the faculty lounge because they wanted to know what this creature was all about.
I was offered the job and I was delighted to accept. And so when I arrived in the fall of 1969, there were three women in the professorial ranks in the University. There were women lecturers, but in the professorial length, that was it. We were asked to do everything, speak to this group, serve on that committee. My own view of that was ‘sure, I’ll try all of that out.’ If there are things I like, I’ll do them again. And if I don’t like them, I won’t do them again.
One could have taken the view that this was pure tokenism, which of course it was, but that wasn't the way I looked at it. The history department was welcoming. When I walked into precepts, my students, literally all male would stand up and pull out my chair for me. That didn’t last very long. One of my junior advisees brought me an apple to office hours. My course evaluation said things like ‘there’s less idle joking in your classes and you teach from a feminine point of view.’ I asked some students I came to know well whatever that meant, and they didn’t know. I was invited to the meals and eating clubs and I was only 25 years old, so not much older than the juniors and seniors there — it was usually well into the meal before students at the table realized they were eating with a faculty member.
It was an adventure in the beginning, but that’s how I got here. And then I spent many years teaching 20th century American history. In 1982, I became the founding master of Mathey College. In 1987, President Bowen appointed me Dean of the College and I served as Dean of the College until 2011.
DP: What was your experience like being the first woman in the history department? How did the department evolve over time with you being there?
NM: Well, we all got used to each other. After I came, they began to hire more women. So I wasn’t the only woman for more than a year or two. My department was quite welcoming. I know there were people in the department who didn’t think I ought to be there, but they didn’t tell me that. Other departments were much tougher on women at the assistant professor level.
When we were doing a search for a new assistant professor, and they came up with a female candidate, one of my colleagues said, ‘well, what do you think?’ And he said, ‘I guess you’re in an impossible situation. If you say you don’t want to hire her, it’s because you want to be the only woman and if you say you do, it’s because she’s a woman.’ I wasn’t thinking there would be encounters like that, where it just sort of scratches your head.
I was teaching a Black History seminar in the department. Seminars in American Studies were often co-taught with other faculty members and a faculty committee in the Program in American Studies would meet and decide what the seminar would be for the next year. They had had religion in America and they had socialism in America. They decided that the next one would be women in America and they looked at me and they said, and ‘you’re the logical person to teach it,’ but I didn't know anything about the history of women. So I co-taught it with a new faculty member in English who actually knew quite a lot about it. Situations like that came up all the time.
DP: I noticed that after four years in the history department, you were recommended for tenure, which first resulted in a negative departmental vote and then later resulted in a positive one. What was the process like for getting tenure? Do you think it was different to go through that process as a woman?
NM: I was in the fall of my sixth year, which is when people normally come up for tenure. You spent three years as an assistant professor, you were reappointed for another three years, and in the fall of year six, you got recommended for tenure. That was a time at Princeton when there were very tight budgetary constraints, and the Dean of Faculty had to issue what were called tenure slow plans, where he told each department based on the age and distribution of your faculty by rank, ‘this is the number of tenure appointments you'll get in the next year and in the next five years.’ It was a very difficult time in terms of awarding tenure. At the same time, it was a time when the American historians were looking to hire ‘a star.’ Well, I wasn’t a star, though I was a serviceable faculty member, there was no way you would have said that I fit their definition of stardom.
They were afraid that if they spent the slot on me, that would preclude their being able to hire a star. And nobody ever did this before at Princeton. So the Dean of Faculty said to the department, ‘if you decide you want to tenure, Nancy, you’ll still have the spot to hire the star.’ The department interpreted that as the Dean of the Faculty interfering in department business and leading on the department to appoint me. That’s not what he was doing. He was trying in good faith to say, ‘I understand the constraints you’re under. I understand your aspirations and given that she’s a woman and we’ve never done this before, if you want to do it, we can do both.’ The climate was very complicated. Nobody knew how to do it. The Dean of Faculty didn’t know that by trying to be helpful, he would be misinterpreted. The department didn't know that the faculty was trying to be helpful and not lean on them.
So the decision was made to reconsider. And then the department voted positively. It was complicated. I had good colleagues in the department who were very supportive. The President, the Provost, and the Dean of the Faculty were very supportive, so I was more bemused by it than upset by it.
DP: I want to move a little bit more into your role as Dean of the College because you were Dean of the College for a while and in your role, you developed the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, which is very popular even today and launched the college’s new four-year system. Can you talk a bit about some of your initiatives?
NM: During my deanship, we instituted the Writing Program and the freshman writing seminars. We revamped the general education requirements. We really started up on greatly expanded study abroad, internships abroad. Many things happened during those 24 years. We didn’t finish any job but we got some things underway that I think have proven beneficial for undergraduates.
DP: I also noticed that you implemented what students call a ‘grade deflation’ policy that is talked about even today. I’m wondering what kind of feedback did you receive from students and faculty on this decision? Was there any sort of backlash or did people agree with you?
NM: We didn’t call it grade deflation. That’s what students called it. What happened? Grades were going up and up and up. Members of the faculty were saying to me, ‘you and the faculty committee on examinations have to do something about this. We’re getting to the point where grades are not meaningful.’ And I would say back, ‘what can be done can be done in the department?’ And I was told, ‘no, you have to have a policy that will apply across the University, because otherwise there’s no incentive for me and my colleagues in my department to grade more responsibly.’ I said, ‘but I would be laughed out of a faculty meeting if I brought forward a proposal for a university-wide grading standard,’ and they said ‘no, you absolutely have to do this.’ So I was pressured by the faculty.
The faculty committee on examinations of standing spent a long time studying these questions and came up with a proposal, which said that, on average over time, the percentage of A grades in each department ought to be no more than 35 percent. It didn’t say you can only give 35 percent of A grades. It didn’t say you must do anything. It just said that would be a good target to aim for. What we’re really trying to do in grading is to get faculty members to distinguish between students’ most outstanding work and their ordinarily good work, because we said right now they’re getting the same grade. It would be more informative for students if there was some differentiation in grading, so that was a policy that was adopted.
Of course, faculty members, when students complained about their grades, faculty members started saying ‘Dean Malkiel made me do it,’ which was really helpful. Which of course wasn’t true, and I never said anything. Students believed we were harming their chances for admission to graduate school and professional schools and for qualifying for interviews for prestigious internships. There’s all sorts of data demonstrating that was not true.
There was a meningitis B scare around that time and students created a meme, which had a picture of me and that headline was ‘Meningitis B?’ And then at the bottom, it said ‘would have been meningitis A at Harvard,’ which I thought was actually quite amusing. We thought we were doing some good, but students and parents did not think we were doing good. After President Eisgruber [’83] became president, given the onslaught of complaints, I think he decided it really wasn’t worth the fight.
DP: You wrote an article and book in regards to coeducation in American colleges. Can you tell me about it?
NM: I wrote a book published in 2016 called “Keep the Damned Women Out.” What I was trying to do in that book was to answer the question, ‘why was it in the very brief period 1969 to 1974 that so many colleges and universities in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom, decided to go coeducation all at once?’ Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth specifically. Harvard is a distinct case, so I don’t list Harvard. So many other men’s colleges and some of the women’s colleges that sort of, for example. And in the United Kingdom, the first men’s colleges that Oxford and Cambridge to admit women so what was going on was what I was trying to understand in writing this book. I have a lot of chapters about the advent of coeducation in Princeton, a lot about Yale, a lot about Harvard, even though it is a distinctive case. I wrote about the women’s colleges and how they handled it, [such as] Vassar, Smith, [and] Wellesley.
What I discovered is that at Princeton and Yale, you all were looking at each other and making moves, fully cognizant of what the other one was doing. By the end of the 1960s, the best boys wanted to go to school with girls. And so at Harvard and Radcliffe, men and women were in class together even though Harvard wasn’t coed, that made Harvard increasingly attractive up until the mid-1960s. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton essentially went head to head in admissions. By the end of the decade, Harvard was pulling away from Yale and Princeton, because more high school boys wanted to go to Harvard because there were women in close proximity.
To reverse the decline in applications and retain their previous hold on a fair share of these best boys, they thought that meeting women students would have the effect of attracting more of the best male applicants. That’s why they embarked on coeducation. It wasn’t some moral imperative to educate women. It wasn’t from an altruistic sense that they needed to make educational opportunities available to women. It was to restore their competitive position. In applications to college and everybody else, still was watching what we’re doing and came for various reasons. Essentially, copy what you set out to do. This was a time when the women’s movement, the scene movement, the civil rights movement, the notion that males and females who had protested together got to register voters together weren't going to go to school together seems really anachronistic.
DP: Can you expand a bit on the process of coeducation at Princeton?
NM: It was April of 1969, late April, when the Princeton trustees decided on coeducation and that the women would come in September. Now, Princeton, in a very process-oriented way, would never in the abstract have made a major decision in late April to be implemented in September without more time to plan carefully. [They] had to do that because Yale had decided to admit women in the fall of 1969, and they weren’t going to let Yale get out ahead of Princeton.
It was fascinating to me to see the direct competition between Princeton and Yale and the reason that Yale decided in the fall of 1968, to go co-ed, was they received Princeton’s report on education, the Patterson report, in late September of 1968. They realized that Princeton could be serious about this. And they had no intention of letting Princeton get out ahead of them. The Princeton-Yale competition and all of this that determined so much of what happened to me and was a fascinating revelation that I had just not understood at all.
DP: What do you believe, if anything, that coeducation should be in 2023 and beyond?
NM: In , President Tilghman appointed a group of faculty and students and administrators to study the question of undergraduate women’s leadership. Because we had observed that, in the early part of the 21st century, undergraduate women were hanging back from taking leadership positions. In the late 20th century, as we admitted more women, more women were well represented in leadership positions on campus. And so we were trying to understand what had happened by the 21st century. Why was it that women were declining to put themselves forward for leadership positions at a rate? We did a lot of data collection — a lot of interviewing of students and young alumni — and issued a report, which I think has made some difference in the willingness of women students to put themselves forward and in their election as student government officers, as editors of [student papers], as club presidents, and so on.
My first question would be where we stand on women and leadership, and have we made gains and have those gains stuck? The second question we were exploring was the reticence of women to major in some of the departments that might be construed as less hospitable to women like math, physics, and economics. Those are the questions on my mind.
Lia Opperman is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’
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