Campus & Community

Risking unknown roads

3 min read

Radcliffe marks a transformational decade

Ten years ago today (Oct. 1), venerable Radcliffe College — chartered in 1894 — became the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The document memorializing this transformation was signed by the Radcliffe College Board of Trustees and the Harvard Corporation.

That moment of change a decade ago was noted early today at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel, where Radcliffe Dean Barbara J. Grosz provided the brief talk that accompanies the weekday tradition. Presiding was Taylor Lewis Guthrie, HDS ’10, a seminarian in the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

Invited speakers at Morning Prayers — though of all denominations and religious backgrounds — often choose a passage from the Bible as a preface to their remarks. Grosz chose Genesis 32:24-28, in which biblical patriarch Jacob is alone on the bank of a river his family has just crossed over. He feels the fear of change as well as the disorientation of a new name just bestowed on him by God: Israel.

“He is crossing into a different kind of life,” she said of Jacob, who famously wrestled an angel on that same riverbank. In the same way, Radcliffe made a crossing to a different life in 1999, said Grosz.

But it had made crossings of a sort before, she added. In 1879, the “Harvard Annex,” a Radcliffe precursor, first made a Harvard education available to women. In 1943, Radcliffe students were for the first time allowed into Harvard classrooms. In 1960, the Bunting Fellowship Program opened its doors, an anticipation of present day Radcliffe Fellows. And in 1963, women were first admitted into Harvard’s arts and sciences graduate schools.

So change — both “daunting and life transforming,” she said — had come before to Radcliffe. And why not, said Grosz, who is also the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences: “Universities are places of transition.”

By the late 1990s, the Radcliffe Board of Trustees saw clearly “how Radcliffe, Harvard, and the world had evolved,” she said. Making the traditional college an institute for advanced study was “bold, indeed risky,” said Grosz — but the move also recognized the increasing importance within universities of places that “encourage intellectual risk taking” among diverse, cross-disciplinary communities of scholars.

Radcliffe’s diversity and inclusiveness were hinted at in the hymn that closed Morning Prayers, set to an 1899 musical composition by Jean Sibelius. “My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine,” one verse read, “but other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.”

Diversity, crossing disciplines, and a “refuge for scholars” like the Radcliffe Fellows program are all means of challenging the present, said Grosz. “Like Jacob, we have the courage to risk unknown roads.”