Intersections of Athletics and Institutional Identity in Women's College Transitions to Coeducation

Open Access
Barney, Danielle
Graduate Program:
Higher Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 12, 2018
Committee Members:
  • Roger Geiger, Dissertation Advisor
  • Roger Geiger, Committee Chair
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Committee Member
  • Mark Dyreson, Committee Member
  • Jessica Lynn Schultz, Outside Member
  • higher education
  • intercollegiate athletics
  • coeducation
  • gender
  • institutional change
  • institutional identity
The history of the intercollegiate athletics programs at Elmira College and Vassar College in the late 1960s and 1970s, when both historical women’s colleges went coeducational, illustrates that attitudes about collegiate sports in formerly single-sex colleges were not entirely homogeneous. In the 1970s, the national structure of and assumptions about college athletics in the United States for men and women were remarkably different and each experienced significant transformations. This overarching history, played out on an institutional level that had no tradition of providing athletics opportunities for males, placed the unique choice of athletics representation into the hands of the colleges. Not only were the Vassar and Elmira coeducation transitions unique, but their interpretation of the role of athletics within that transitional identity was pioneering. At Elmira, men’s intercollegiate athletics was a purposeful component to its coeducation. The spectacle of intercollegiate athletics was an example of the college’s prestige. Men’s intercollegiate athletics developed with an urgency that made such sport programs appear as a rite of entrance into male education. By initially separating the greater part of the men’s and women’s programs, Elmira supported stereotypical gender norms with an athletics nexus and reinforced a status level differential between its men and its women from the start of coeducation. For Vassar, the administration commonly discussed athletics for men, yet was skeptical of a large-scale program. Vassar instead reinforced a sport structure which favored neither gender nor any particular concept of athletics. Development of the intercollegiate program therefore occurred slowly, and not without criticism. Simultaneous fears of the “jock” mentality and of association with homosexuality riddled efforts to establish intercollegiate sports, and only reflected prevailing gendered archetypes. Despite the fall back to norms, men’s and women’s athletics treatment were equivalent and harbored intentions of maintaining equality. Such institutional histories detail the diversity of institutional change, demonstrate the potential utility of sport during transformation, and contribute a foundation for analysis of the influence of status and prestige on institutional-wide change and the development of intercollegiate athletics. Finally, such histories isolate gendered patterns of change which can be influenced by or profoundly shape intercollegiate athletics.