With the Class of 2014’s admissions statistics in, it is safe to say that this incoming class will be rather unlike those of yesteryear. Throughout its history, Northwestern has transformed from an all-white, all-male institution into a school with an increasingly diverse pool of students. The process continues to this day, albeit in long, drawn-out steps.
First Steps (1855-1900)
In 1855, the North-Western Women’s College opened as an adjunct institution to its private, all-male counterpart, which opened the same year. Since the Women’s College wasn’t backed by the university, it was financially troubled, though it grew quickly in popularity.
In 1869, Erastus Haven took charge as University President, and his determinedly progressive outlook made coeducation inevitable. Northwestern’s Board of Trustees voted to admit women at the same meeting that Haven was elected president, and Evanston resident Rebecca Hoag became the first female to enroll.
Women didn’t really comprise a significant portion of the student body until 1873, when the Evanston College for Ladies, the school started by Frances Willard, merged with the university. Willard generated a lot of controversy in her time, rallying for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and made her mark on Northwestern’s history by bringing her female followers to the university.
The town of Evanston being primarily white, Christian and conservative, accepting and attracting students from more diverse backgrounds was difficult, and the acceptance rates were low. Prior to 1973, in fact, the university didn’t even keep records of admissions numbers for demographics other than male and female students.
Through the 1940s, only five black students were admitted every year, though they were excluded from on-campus housing until 1947. At that time, the “International House” opened its doors to black women. Several progressive leaders saw that this was not enough.
Professor and anthropologist Melville Herskovits and women’s counselor Ruth McCarn were among the leaders advocating integration at the university. Herskovits specialized in African cultures and brought new understanding of black students to the university.
While Herskovits attempted to recruit more black students to Northwestern, McCarn advocated ceaselessly for integrated on-campus housing. In 1949, the university purchased Asbury Hall, meant to serve as an all-black male dorm. A group of liberal white students moved in almost immediately in a statement of integration, and Asbury became the hub of civil rights at Northwestern.
Finally, between 1966 and 1968, the number of black students enrolled in the university increased from less than 50 to 160. By the fall of 1973, there were 646 black students in the incoming class alone — a huge step, thanks to university admission quotas.
In the age of affirmative action, Northwestern’s demographics are now far different than anyone in 1855 would have imagined they could be. One of the demographics Northwestern has struggled to pull in most is that of Asian students. Until 1984, less than 5 percent of the student body was Asian, and their integration was often opposed as much, if not more than, blacks or any other group.
In one well-publicized incident in 1956, Sherman Wu, the son of Taiwanese governor K.C. Wu, was offered a bid to the fraternity Psi Upsilon. His fellow pledges, however, threatened to quit on account of Wu’s race, publicly stating that “Having an Oriental in the house would degrade them in the eyes of other fraternities and make it more difficult to get dates from the sororities.” Though it took nearly a decade for fraternities and sororities to eliminate racial and religious discrimination at Northwestern, the Sherman Wu affair shed a negative light on the university and led to it easing up on discriminatory policies and attempting to recruit more Asian students.
Discriminatory incidents have not completely ceased, and many would like to see even more diversity in the student body, but the university has made huge strides in expanding the type of students it attracts.
Look for more about diversity in North by Northwestern Magazine, which hits campus Friday.