The Coordinate System: History & Context

By Alex Kerai ’19

Editor-in-Chief

When, William Smith gave about $475,000 to the Trustees of Hobart for the founding of William Smith College for women on December 13, 1906, the college was to be coordinate with the “men’s department” and under Hobart’s Board of Trustees. The coordinate agreement is unique among American colleges; it is touted by the Colleges as being in place for exploration and discovery among students with its separate student governments, deans, traditions, and athletic departments. However, as conversations have begun on campus about the continuation of the coordinate system in its current form, it is necessary to understand the context and history in which the system was implemented.

In the October 22, 1942 issue of the Herald, page 2 noted Dr. John Milton Potter as “president of the coordinate colleges” in “Campus Briefs.” It is one of the first instances of that phrase being used. Dr. Potter would unite the Colleges under one corporate name in 1943 as The Colleges of the Seneca. This elevated William Smith to an independent college, still in a coordinate agreement with Hobart, from its original status as a part of Hobart. It created Hobart and William Smith Colleges as a collective institution.

The two colleges had slowly combined after the first joint commencement ceremony was held in 1922, after coeducational classes were becoming more prominent across campus. In the early days of the agreement, at the start of the 20th century, classes and professors would be the same, except the classes would be taught twice with men and women being taught separately. Class duplication was one of the many binding rules and traditions at the Colleges in the middle of the 20th century. However, after joining together under the umbrella of The Colleges of the Seneca, the Colleges began to chart a path forward together.

With the beginning of the 21st century, societal changes led to campus changes: transgender students advocated for their right to switch Colleges and the Colleges added an LGBTQ+ Resource Center. The Culture of Respect report, presented in Summer 2015 by now Interim President Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. ’12 and retired Assistant Vice President, Director of Admissions Mara O’Laughlin ’66, L.H.D. ’13, also brought more attention to the coordinate college structure.

According to the Culture of Respect report, “Each college is chartered separately as a degree granting institution in the State of New York.” The Colleges are, however, according to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, legally and corporately identified as “Hobart and William Smith Colleges.” (An email to the New York State Department of Education about the Articles of Incorporation was unanswered by the time we went to print.)

However, the most important thing, at a student-centered institution like HWS, Hobart Dean Khuram Hussain notes, is “creating opportunities for students to understand what their power is, and then to engage in the kinds of changes that are meaningful – whether it’s traditions or the entire system itself. It’s to empower students with knowledge and information; to empower them with a sense of their efficacy and agency: this is your school.”

When discussing how people feel represented within the system, William Smith Dean Lisa Kaenzig noted: “We have a way of making sure that everybody voice is heard here.” We value “the voices of those who have been more disenfranchised – women, LBGTQ people – that’s really the fundamental core values of this place and I think coordinate supports that so well,” she said. Honor societies and awards from the individual colleges were brought up as an issue that people who do not identify with either college face, however Kaenzig said that no student has spoken with her about accepting honors while not identifying as that gender. “We would probably deal with it like we do most things: talking to the student and saying, ‘What would you like to apply for? What feels like the right fit for you?’”

Dean Hussain notes that the emergence of William Smith Colleges was “an embodied move to rectify something that was not whole – these institutions were not built for everyone, let’s build them differently.” He continued by saying that it is an ongoing conversation that “opens up one of the ways in which the institution wasn’t built to really address gender identities more broadly, and so now what? What does that mean?”

“I have always felt, in the fifteen-plus years I’ve worked here, like I’m talking to an individual person,” Dean Kaenzig said. “I’m working with each individual student, so all the parts of your identity are important to me, as you choose to express them or change them while you’re a student here.” Dean Kaenzig emphasized that the deans were here for all students, and that no matter what a student identified as, they could go meet with any dean, it is not exclusively determined by college assignment.

There was also discussion of Orientation and how first-years spend time in groups with “a Hobart mentor and a William Smith mentor – and I just love that,” Dean Kaenzig said. “I love that on all of our committees we’ve got a William Smith student and a Hobart student, and on the Board of Trustees we’ve got two Hobart and two William Smith students…I think that’s fantastic! And I really think that makes…all of us better at learning how to work and live together.”

“What I think is fascinating is that [this conversation] is still, in terms of really moving things forward, students. Whether it’s alums…student governments, student organizations – It’s still students that are moving this conversation forward. They are the ones that are so invested in this,” Dean Hussain said. This notion led to a project with the William Smith Dean’s office.

The Deans’ Offices and the two student governments – Hobart Student Government and William Smith Congress – are going to be working together on a dialogue series, beginning in late November. Although in its early stages, the goal is to bring in many different offices and people, along with student organizations and students to discuss campus culture and the Ccordinate system on campus.  “Right now we have a unique opportunity to elevate marginalized voices,” Dean Hussain said. “It would be unfortunate if a decision was made about coordinate without engaging in campus-wide conversations about gender and culture with particular attention to the needs of trans students.”

The Herald also reached out to members of senior staff – Vice President for Campus Life Robb Flowers, Vice President for Marketing & Communications Cathy Williams, Vice President for Admissions & Dean of Enrollment John Young, Vice President for Advancement Bob O’Connor, Associate Vice President for Advancement & Alumnae Relations Kathy Regan ’82, and Associate Vice President for Advancement & Alumni Relations Jared Weeden ’91 – for comment on various issues pertaining to the coordinate system and their specific roles within the Administration. The goal was to gather more information on the coordinate system and answer questions about procedures and policies. Interim President Patrick A. McGuire L.H.D. ’12 wrote back to the Herald with a statement from the administration as a whole.

“As observed in the Culture of Respect report,” the Statement begins. “The Colleges have work to do to realize a contemporary definition of our coordinate heritage and structure. We are clearly committed to this effort and recognize that we have work ahead of us to realize our goals. In our efforts, we remain committed to ensuring that our students have an educational environment that gives them access to the support and resources they need to thrive. We look forward to working collaboratively with our students, faculty, staff and alums to do so.”

McGuire noted that “policies and resources regarding students who identify as transgender or non-binary can be found on the LGBT page of the Student Life section of the Colleges’ website and in our Community Standards Handbook.” He also noted that HWS is ensuring that every residence hall will have an all-gender bathroom and that the Colleges offer fully gender inclusive housing.

When discussing Campus Life, headed by Robb Flowers, McGuire noted that “engage first-year students in a dialogue around gender, pronouns and contributing to a culture of respect on the first day of their arrival. The Kaleidoscope program further explores these issues with a session dedicated to introducing new students to the Colleges’ coordinate heritage and traditions.” That heritage is also announced on tours and information sessions, and also can be found in admissions print materials. Admissions recently surveyed the first-year class and found that “90% of students know about our coordinate structure.”

In September, Campus Life also began “a dialogue series on the coordinate system with Campus Life staff and the deans of Hobart and William Smith.” In the meeting, there was conversation about “safe spaces on-campus and how gender differences are perceived.” This dialogue series will hopefully be continued, but can also be supplemented with the project that the deans and student governments are working on.

McGuire said that “the Office of Advancement serves all alumni and alumnae, as does the Board of Trustees.” There are currently two alum associations – “one for Hobart and one for William Smith with the majority of initiatives and programming designed to serve the entire constituency” – and “alums who identify as transgender or non-binary are welcome as part of either Association or both.” There have been conversations “regarding our coordinate heritage and structure” led by the Alumni / Alumnae Associations, including one webinar in the middle of September, that will continue this weekend with the Board of Trustees and Alumni / Alumnae Associations meeting.

President McGuire concluded that “we are pleased that so many of our alums are engaged in discussions about the Colleges and remain committed to fostering these productive conversations.”

In March 2018, the social justice theatre group at HWS, Mosaic NY, began an online video campaign #OneHWS. The campaign primarily focused on videos, with select members of the company. A statement about the project online reads, “Mosaic NY believes that the coordinate system is a social injustice, standing in the way of the Colleges achieving its desired goal of inclusive excellence by denying full rights to trans and gender non-binary/nonconforming students.”

The campaign was created as a way to, according to the same online statement, “begin a conversation about the real, lived experiences of students under the coordinate system and to generate public pressure on the Colleges to reconsider their commitment to it.” In recent weeks, Mosaic NY has continued to work on the #OneHWS campaign. In addition to the three videos produced, all released in March 2017, Mosaic has a performance scheduled for the Alumni / Alumnae Association meetings on campus this weekend.

Additionally, a letter was sent by members of the faculty to President McGuire and members of the Board of Trustees. It was a group letter, signed by forty-two members, that said they “believe it is time to move toward uniting the Colleges and ending the coordinate system.” The letter wanted a “community-wide conversation” about the coordinate system with emphasis on “The voices of transgender and non-binary students and graduates; Respect for the dedicated work of staff and administrators whose jobs are tied to the coordinate system; and Celebration of the rich history of the Colleges and an optimistic vision for the future.”

It is that first point – “the voices of transgender and non-binary students and graduates” – that has led to this issue of the Herald.

We have collected viewpoints from eight transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming identifying / questioning students and alums on the coordinate system. Beginning in mid-September, the Herald emailed and reached out to students on campus and recent graduates to ask if they would share their perspectives. We chose to ask transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming identifying / questioning students and alums because they were specifically mentioned in the HWS faculty letter. Because their voices deserve to be heard.

Our goal at the Herald is to be a Voice for the Students, to provide an outlet for students to voice a wide range of opinions and ideas. We, as a newspaper, are not taking a stand but rather providing a way for these viewpoints to reach a wider audience.

There are eight viewpoints on within this section. They have not been edited for content and length. They represent a diverse range of opinions from current students and alums – all of whom have a stake in this conversation. We are proud to publish them here in the pages of the Herald.

Read the Coordinate Viewpoints by transgender, non-binary, and/or gender non-conforming identifying / questioning students and alums.

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