Student Life, 1970s
While other colleges had massive protests over the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, Davidson’s war protest was a witty way of getting out of a duty. In July of 1971, seven Davidson men had their own graduation. The men had dropped out of the college at the end of their senior years before finishing their Reserved Officers Training requirement so that upon graduation they would not enter the draft. The students then took summer courses to complete their requirements. The graduation marshal carried a mace made of a broomstick and toilet paper while the sergeant at arms carried a toilet plunger in the back. They stopped at important places for them during their college years and ended playing “America” on kazoos.
These were the rebels of Davidson. No signs, no yelling, no protests. A tricky way to get their diplomas and avoid a war they didn’t believe in.
With coeducation beginning in 1972, Davidson’s demographics changed drastically. Yet Davidson did not immediately become fifty percent women and fifty percent men. In the first two years of coeducation, women only made up four to five percent of the entire student body. During the 1970s, the highest the female population reached was thirty-four percent of the student body in 1976-1977. Geographically, the school was still predominantly from the Southeast, with still just a few Yankees venturing down South.. Racially, the school was predominantly white, with a few African-American students, many of whom happened to be athletes.
The biggest construction project of the 1970s was E.H. Little Library, which opened in September of 1974. The library moved from Sloane to its new home directly behind Chambers Building.
Coeducation and Diversity
During the 1970s, Davidson’s biggest student life change was coeducation. The first freshmen class of women entered in the fall of 1972. With the influx of women, there were drastic changes to the campus itself. Prior to coeducation, Davidson had barely any women’s facilities. The inclusion of women led to the renovation and construction of dormitories and amenities, like the laundry. According to Joyce Hight, who worked in the Business Services office during coeducation, these tasks included projecting costs for the laundry adding services for women’s clothing.
Housing for women was not ideal either. The first class of freshmen women lived there for their four years together in Gray House, now the Admissions building. T. Hartley Hall, ‘51, , whose daughter was a member of this class, indicated that his daughter’s Davidson experience revolved around Gray House. These girls came to an all male environment, and at least for some, this house became their Davidson.
Another change was an increase in counselors from one part time counselor to five full time counselors. Men at the college, such as Mrs. Hight’s husband, thought that “guys won’t go to a counselor unless they’re in really dire straits and a girl will go to a counselor if she has a problem with her roommate.” While perhaps not the most factual viewpoint, this was the sentiment at the time around adding female students.
This increase in counselors was part of a larger change in college culture around mental health. Sue Ross, the Associate Dean of Students, explained that she was partially hired due to her background in counseling. She also stated in relation to their work on eating disorders, “I think we were the first people, really led people in the state on recognizing that that is not just a behavioral issue, or some very simple minded thing like these people are very competitive and this is the one thing they can control. We really looked at it as a real problem, as an addiction.” Mental health was coming to the forefront of services for women.
Racially, the school was still predominantly white. Richard Terry, a freshman in 1977, described Davidson as “very preppy.” Students wore Topsiders and IZOD polos. Yet, at freshmen orientation, Dean William Terry led a square dance, a culturally country dance. This preppy culture was a change from the early 1970s. Mr. Terry stated that he never saw marijuana smoked in his time at Davidson. Yet in talking to upperclassmen, he said that they claimed marijuana was huge throughout campus; finding “pot plants growing on window sills of residence halls” was common.
During the 1970s, the drinking age was eighteen, meaning that all students could legally consume alcohol. Because of this, professors and administrators would join students at parties on Patterson Court. This social system created a certain culture around drinking. David Waddill, ‘81, described this system: “My fraternity, we would invite different administrators or faculty members to cocktail parties. If it was a formal evening party, they’d come early and go ahead and leave…They could come and we would get to know them. They would get to know us and they were very interested. A lot of people would tell stories.”
Both students and administrators thought it was a good system. Mr Waddill viewed this system at mutually beneficial: I would imagine for administrators or faculty they gained some insight from those informal relations that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. As students, we benefitted immensely. We could hear what they were thinking about issues of the day outside the college.”
Administrators as well as students thought that the drinking environment was better when the drinking age was 18. Sue Ross stated, “I think not being able to have that social interaction that also embraced a professional counseling relationship was huge.” The 1970s social scene allowed students to have relationships with professors that were not just in the classroom. Their relationship expanded beyond the classroom and resulted in conversations that might not have otherwise occurred.
Social life in the 1970s also saw a rise and fall in the use of marijuana. Mr. Terry, a student during the late 1970s, stated that he never saw marijuana smoked in his time at Davidson. Yet in talking to upperclassmen, he said that they claimed marijuana was huge throughout campus; finding “pot plants growing on window sills of residence halls” was common.
With the introduction of coeducation, Davidson’s student body wanted a female social organization. In 1977, Rusk Eating House was founded. By 1982, Rusk was so popular that a second women’s house, Warner Hall, was founded.
Davidson’s social system experienced a drastic change when President Sam Spencer required self-selection for all fraternities. This system meant that the bid system that fraternities ran on would no longer be allowed. Instead first year students would be allowed to choose which house they wanted to be in and fraternities would have to accept those students. The results of self selection damaged the fraternity system: four of the fraternities lost their charters, two fraternities moved off campus, two fell apart, and the other four remained on campus, accepting self selection.
According to David Waddill,’81, Dean of Students William Terry had to deal with some alumni frustration about this decision. As he put it, “people were very upset.” Davidson’s social life had run entirely through fraternities. To alumni, getting rid of this system changed the framework of Davidson. One such letter did not speak specifically to fraternities but cited that changes he observed in the college had made him not want to donate to the school: “…it seems to me that D.C. has become (1) larger, (2) less and less church-connected, (3) more and more “liberal,” (4) more and more “arty” and (5) trending towards co-education. These trends are indisputable, but I doubt if all are real-progress.” Social changes that President Spencer implemented often received a mixed reception among students and alums, with mandated self selection a good example.
In a letter outlining his goals as dean, Dean Terry expressed that self selection was only the beginning of the college’s goal “to perpetuate the small group/eating club arrangement.” Mr. Terry claimed that “students are bored with combo-keg part,” a staple of fraternity parties. Self selection, for administrators, was an attempt to move the social system in a direction that the changing student body would approve of, not alumni.
One event in 1977 indicated a deeply Christian, and more specifically Presbyterian, Davidson remained in the 1970s even with all the other changes. In 1977, Chaplain Otey boycotted the Convocation service in order to protest the fact that a Jewish professor had been offered a contract, which was rescinded when the committee learned that he was Jewish. Professor’s religious beliefs took precedence over their academic qualifications. While the college had opened their doors to women and African-Americans in the past decade, it wanted to remain Christian in all facets.
Although Davidson remained Christian, the percent of the student body who was Catholic increased substantially. Rush Otey, the chaplain of the college in the late 1970s, attributed this increase to coeducation, which resulted in a more national population of students. Because the closest mass was in Mooresville and many students did not have cars, the college began to offer mass in the chapel. For some, this was too much of a movement away from Davidson’s Presbyterian roots.
Author: Desmond Niegowski
Date: 6 October 2015
Cite as: Niegowski, Desmond. “1970s Student Life,” Davidson Encyclopedia, 6 October 2014 <https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/college-archives-davidson-encyclopedia/page/student-life-1970s>