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Experience of a Lifetime: Kirkland College

I went to a wonderful college in upstate New York. It was the sister school to a very prestigious men’s liberal arts college. It only survived 10 years but I always saw the men’s school as the poor little brother rather than the other way around. Kirkland College was a glorious experiment in education built by Hamilton College in 1968. It fostered creativity, deep thought, personal responsibility and a commitment to serious academic and artistic work. Kirkland College’s graduates are vital, active, sharp-as-tacks, curious women and certainly in part because of the story of Kirkland, have held onto their commitment to the issues facing women. Kirkland’s creativity and rebellious nature was always a thorn in the side of Hamilton College. Hamilton College swallowed up Kirkland in 1978. Our two institutions were starkly different. Kirkland’s angular, cement and primary color buildings were the visual shout that Kirkland was new and different from the stately Georgian buildings of Hamilton. Kirkland’s curriculum was student based. We devised our own concentrations, we had no grades, no exams. Hamilton’s coursework was traditional in contrast and reality. This was a time when women were knocking on glass ceilings that my daughter’s generation cannot imagine. Kirkland women who took biology at Hamilton were told that women did not belong in science or medicine. Hamilton men called us Kirkies. We were considered flaky artsy hippies. Hamilton men tended toward the pre-law and pre-med, and the consuming of large quantities of alcohol. The fraternity system was a substantial part of Hamiton's social life. Kirkland had no sororities. But, Kirkland’s short vibrant life attracted some men to Hamilton who would have preferred to enroll at Kirkland and perhaps some women who would have preferred to enroll at Hamilton (although I don’t know of any). Hamilton’s conservative students and Kirkland’s liberal ones challenged and balanced each other forcing us to find ways to listen to each other and coexist. The administrations were, unfortunately, not so successful. The Hamilton administration, behaving as the Republicans currently in the Senate, chose to shut Kirkland down rather than to find a way to work with Kirkland. The demise of Kirkland was heartbreaking to everyone at Kirkland, including alumni and staff. This was a beautiful and idealistic college populated with dedicated and deeply caring, creative and energetic people. Those in charge of Hamilton were shocked at what they created, unable to see its beauty and tragically were compelled to destroy Hamilton's rebellious child rather than nurture its creative spirit.