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Where Have Women Come from at VPI and Where Are They Going?

by Laura Jane Harper

The Women's Network has asked me to make a few comments from my perspective on progress made in relation to opportunities for women at VPI during the thirty five years that I have been affiliated with the University, and on needs for additional development. At the beginning, let me say that I do not have access to recent figures; thus my remarks are, of necessity, general.

Most of the improvement in opportunities for women that has occurred at VPI has come about in the last 20 years and relates almost exclusively to those available to students. Form 1950 to the early 1960's, undergraduate enrollment hovered around one-fifth of present student body size; undergraduate enrollment of women was approximately five percent of the enrollment at that time. Numbers of women who were faculty were even smaller in relation to total faculty and also fairly constant; academic administrators in policy-making positions who were women are usually found in home economics. Major programs of study outside of home economics, also considered to be ones traditionally chosen by women were, for the most part, unavailable at the University. Programs in education and in most of the arts and sciences except for the "hard sciences" are products of the sixties and seventies. Where the latter programs existed, they functioned as service courses and were usually administered and taught by men.

When Dr. Hahn came to VPI as President in 1962, one of his first stated commitments was to offer educational opportunities to women in numbers equal to those for men. To attract women to the University as students in larger numbers, majors that most often appeal to them soon became available and dormitory facilities for them were quickly expanded. Graduate programs of study also increased rapidly, especially in tradition-for-women fields of study. Both undergraduate and graduate women were actively recruited and for most areas of study this was the first time that such recruitment was emphasized.

In addition to increasing the number of traditional-for-women areas of study, in the past ten years choices of areas of study by women have begun to shift. Women are moving in dramatic numbers into fields of study previously non-traditional for them, such as agriculture, architecture, business management, and engineering, areas in which VPI has long had national reputations of excellence. Opportunities that have opened up for women as students, both by University design and by changing educational trends, contribute to the continuing increase in number and percentages of women who study at the University. This transformation in student body composition is very likely the greatest change that has occurred in VPI's educational environment in the past twenty years. If the number of women attending the University as students had continued at early 1960 levels, present student body size, number of faculty employed, and student-credit-hour-driven funding would be only a little more than half the present levels. Would such a situation have provided VPI's present expanded library facilities, continuing education center, computer center, laboratories, and other facilities we take for granted at the University in 1985?

How wonderful would be the overall contribution that women might have made to the University's educational environment if the percentage of faculty who are women and administrators in policy-making positions in the past twenty years had kept pace with growth in numbers of women in the student body. In order to further improve the status of women at VPI, there are the two areas in their concerted efforts toward change. Picture, if you will, the University's educational setting when 40-45 percent of the faculty, department heads, academic deans, and overall University administrators are women. If, in the next five years, University administrators and all women on VPI's faculty would work together aggressively to help double the faculty in their own departments who are women, the number who are department chairwomen and academic deans, and those who are university-wide administrators, the scarcity of women on the faculty and in administrative positions would begin a drastic change.

Situations such as this do not come about by chance any more than did the rapid increase in women in the student body. Such movements occur when they are carefully planned and vigorously pursued by all who are concerned with and committed to the change. If we dedicate ourselves to providing equal academic opportunities for women on VPI's faculty and in the administration of its programs of study, that difference in our educational environment can be VIP's outstanding achievement of the next twenty years.

Note: circa 1985