March 5, 2009

Prof Charts Evolution of Human Ecology College

Print More

Dr. Gwen Kay, associate professor of history at SUNY Oswego, spoke to a small audience in Mann Library yesterday about the history surrounding the reorganization of Cornell’s then College of Home Economics into the present day College of Human Ecology. Her lecture was entitled “A Growing College, redux: When Economics Became Human Ecology.”
Sponsored by the College of Human Ecology, the talk was featured in conjunction with an exhibit celebrating Women’s History Month called “This Revolution Has Got to Be for Everybody: The 1969 Cornell Conference on Women.”[img_assist|nid=35833|title=Animated discussion|desc=Dr. Gwen Kay, associate professor of history at SUNY Oswego, examines how and why Human Ecology’s name was changed from the College of Home Economics.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
Throughout her lecture, Kay presented and analyzed various historical events to “outline what had happened at Cornell and other institutions as they grappled over the location of home economics in the changing academic climate of the 1960s.”
By the 60s, various connotations associated with “home economics” were no longer appropriate for a “higher-level” institution such as Cornell. Traditionally associated with “cooking, sewing and cleaning,” home economics seemed out-dated and an evaluation committee consisting of faculty from various related departments throughout the University was established in 1964 to assess the situation.
“On the one hand, home economics colleges provided a home for women scientists. On the other hand, home economics programs became heavily feminized,” Kay said.
“Not surprisingly, most of the committee was male,” Kay said. The committee actively investigated the College of Home Economics by comparing such data as the SAT scores of its students to those of students in other colleges within the University. The findings of the committee culminated in the Blackwell Report, named after Prof. Emerita Sally Blackwell, published the following year.
“In the process of evaluating the College of Home Economics, Cornell did a few things right and a few things not so right,” Kay said.
Among the former category of things done right, Cornell followed the guidelines established in the Blackwell report and worked to integrate more diversity into its programs.
“Even before Title IX [equal opportunity in education acts] and the class action lawsuits to open up single-sex institutions to women, the college determined that it needed to recruit faculty and students and start allowing men, for the first time, to enroll in the college of home economics,” Kay said.
“It is to the college’s credit that [the changes were made] given that many other land-grant institutions had not yet made changes to funding, research imperatives, or the structure of home economics. The process, slow, deliberate and well thought-out, ultimately led to a name change as an external symbol of an internal revolution,” Kay said.
Viewed in retrospect, the most notable mistake was the committee’s failure to involve students and alumnae in the reorganization process.
“Students and alumnae were not part of the process. Students were often seen as temporary denizens unable to see the larger picture … Cornell did not send out a change-of-name card [to notify its alumnae], which seems like a quintessentially female thing to do,” Kay joked.
Audience members comprised of past and current Human Ecology students reflected on the significance of the name change.
“The name ‘home economics’ never seemed to fit what we were doing,” Linda Byard ’68 said. “The college’s name was already obsolete and very few, if any, people focused their studies on home economics in the traditional sense of the phrase.”
Similarly, some current students prefer the College of Human Ecology to the College of Home Economics.
“My core major would define me as a bio-chem major in any other college, but because Human Ecology provides me with a career direction, my interest in nutrition can be combined with core biochemistry coursework to provide me with a future career path,” Brittany Jarrett ‘09 said. “The name ‘home economics’ does not adequately encompass every career that is possible within [the college]. There’s so much more to it than cooking and sewing.”