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1960s

During the 1960s, the University of Richmond held tightly to a Southern Baptist identity that informed its policies and regulations for student behavior. Interactions between men and women were highly policed and supervised; heterosexuality was assumed. LGBTQ individuals were highly closeted, as being “out” meant risking safety, enrollment, and future career ambitions. Gender norms were highly controlled; a male student’s long hair was subject to campus discussion and sanction. Alcohol was strictly forbidden from campus in policy, yet polling revealed a vast majority of students drank. Several University traditions, including May Day, Ring Dance, Greek Week, and Homecoming flourished during this time period. Greek life controlled much of the social scene on campus; around 61 percent of Richmond College (RC) men were involved in one of the 14 fraternities.

As the decade wore on, the tension grew between the rigidity of the conservative Baptist administration and student body’s wants and needs. As reported in The Collegian, student complaints of censorship concerning campus publications were made and in 1964, the editor of The Messenger (the campus literary journal) resigned after he was told not to publish a short story with content deemed ‘sacrilegious’ and ‘profane.’ Additionally, The Collegian (the campus newspaper) was asked not to print the results of a survey detailing campus drug use and sexual activity. These events resulted in both student outcry and the University being humorously made fun of in popular national magazine Playboy.

In the mid-1960s, pressure to integrate increased when the United States Department of Defense threatened to withdraw ROTC programs from schools with racially discriminatory admissions policies. According to a University diversity commission report, the school formally integrated during the 1960s, although in practice remained an almost fully white school, and made little effort to recruit black students. The first black students attended night school in 1964 and were dormitory students in the fall of 1968, but this integration was half-hearted and incomplete at best. In 1969, there were still only 6 black students. Even through the early 1970s, the majority of the black students on campus would be recruited track athletes. 

The Vietnam War also impacted campus life, as student opinion shifted dramatically from support to disapproval between the spring 1968 and fall of 1969. This shift was partially a reaction to the draft’s presence and influence on RC students as deferment became more restricted. Although there was some student agitation regarding national issues such as the war and the 1968 elections, the main issues galvanizing students were often localized and social, including alcohol and dating policies, required convocations, harsh attendance requirements, and student parking restrictions.

Pressure from students led to change at the University as the end of the decade approached; the strict conformity and regulations of student life were loosened and there was movement in a secular direction. In the late 1960s, debates over federal funding prompted questions about the University’s relationship with the Baptist church. In 1969, E. Claiborne Robins’ donation helped save the school from its financial woes, and ultimately set it on a track away from Baptist involvement, as it stipulated a change in the makeup of the Board of Trustees.

LGBTQ Life

In the words of one alumnus, “gay life did not exist at the University of Richmond.” LGBTQ life was highly underground and secretive, as being found out often meant risking both your place at the school and your future career. Beth Marshak, ’72, recalls, “At the time you couldn’t find any information about lesbian and gay issues or homosexuality anywhere; the only information available was in college level psychology textbooks or pulp fiction novels, but you really had to know where to look to find that. I never heard of anything lesbian or gay until the Stonewall Riots, the summer before my first year of college.

“When I started at Westhampton, I didn’t say I was a lesbian but I did know I wasn’t interested in men, although I had experimented in relationships with them. At the time people were extremely closeted, especially if they were a scholarship student, since they wouldn’t want to risk their position. I suspect, over the years, many administration, faculty, and staff at Westhampton were lesbian, as it was one of the few places single women could make a living, and, up until the 1970s, the gentile notion of two women being friends was a cover that still existed.

While at University of Richmond, Marshak, who was a day student, says she dated two different Westhampton students, both of whom lived in dorms. She says, “They organized things, and we would go out in a car on a double date with two men, us sitting in back and the men sitting in the front. It shows that women who connected in dorms found a way of going about things that wouldn’t attract attention. The formalized way of dating the WC students adopted (making it appear that they are dating men) says to me there was some fear involved. The atmosphere was not welcoming to LGBTQ individuals.

“At the time, the main way lesbians met each other was at a gay or lesbian bar or during softball leagues. Early on I went bars and games, and I also met other lesbians in my involvement in the women’s movement. The closest thing to anything LGBTQ at the University at the time was OWL, an Organization for Women’s Liberation. Fraternities were still doing panty raids [on the dorms]. I’m not aware of any gay men organization or social network on campus.”

The first ever discussion of homosexuality appeared in The Collegian in February 1969, and described a religious emphasis week seminar on homosexuality. The article described homosexuality as an “abnormality,” and listed possibilities for a “cure.” The overwhelming view was that homosexuality is dangerous and must be stopped, and reflects the difficulties and danger LGBTQ individuals faced at the time.

Gender Binary

Rigid enforcement of a strict ‘gender binary’, in which RC students were expected to act one way and Westhampton College (WC) students were expected to act a different way, was enforced both formally and informally by the policies and social pressures of the University. Several university-sponsored activities were predicated on heterosexual coupling. Beauty and appearance were emphasized for WC students with beauty contests and pageant-like activities held at the annual festivities of May Day, Ring Dance, Greek Week, and Homecoming; additionally The Web (the school yearbook) picked an annual ‘beauty’ to be featured.

Marshak recalls that she was sent to the dean’s office for wearing slacks to class. “They didn’t punish me because it was an unwritten rule and they couldn’t find an actual rule I was breaking,” she said. “I got the impression that one of the reasons not to wear pants to class was the association of women wearing pants with lesbianism.”

A male student in March 1966 who wore his hair long was subject to both an in-depth Collegian article and great controversy and debate. An entire op-ed was printed arguing against his haircut that stated, “A man who usurps female appearance must logically be ashamed of his masculinity,” and criticized those who deviated from normalcy, since “being unconventional just for the sake of being different is ludicrous.” The student himself faced “cheers and catcalls” walking around campus; his hair was even discussed at the Richmond College Sophomore Class meeting, where it was debated whether or not action needed to be taken against him. This incident reveals some of the conditions of gender and sexuality at the University of Richmond: heterosexuality was presumed, emphasized, and encouraged, although only within the confines of appropriate behavior and regulated dating environments. A small student body in which “everybody knows everybody” made gender and sexuality norms highly intertwined, to the point in that any transgressions were highly visible and pointed out.

Marriage was also expected and encouraged to a certain degree. Engagement and marriage notices were printed in The Collegian, as was the “pinning” of women to fraternity men. “Generally the social expectation for women going to college was for a ‘Mrs. Degree’—you would possibly get married and not finish, but at the very least get engaged,” Marshak says. “My freshman year, an English professor gave us an essay assignment in which we described our wedding. I wrote a paper on why I would not be having a wedding and she wouldn’t accept the paper, saying all girls dream of a wedding. In the end I handed in a paper describing a wedding I had been to, but her assumption that all of her female students fantasized about their weddings show the beliefs that existed at the time.”

Religious Influence

The University of Richmond was initially founded as a seminary school and in the 1960s the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) controlled the Board of Trustees. The University was dependent on the BGAV for funding, which tied many of its actions and policies to the approval of the church. This association had many ramifications on school policy, most noticeably in social regulations between RC and WC students and policies concerning drinking. There was an effective prohibition on campus, but the administration often seemed to ‘look the other’ way when it came to alcohol consumption. In October 1966, The Collegian reported that several Westhampton students were punished for drinking and one was asked to leave; their expulsion resulted in student outcry over the contradictory ways that drinking policies were enforced, and the lack of transparency in the disciplinary process.

The yearly Religious Emphasis Week, held in early February or late January, reflected how Christianity was considered central to a good, well-rounded, liberal arts education at the time. Originally founded in 1937 to give students an opportunity to discuss important religious and social questions, it featured speakers and meetings centered around a theme. In the 1960s, the University used “modern” and “more relevant” topics to keep religion current to students’ lives, with central focuses like “Relevance of Faith” and “Religion is Revolution.” In 1969, Religious Emphasis Week hosted a seminar on homosexuality, the first formal programming at the University concerning lesbian and gay life. During the seminar, Dr. Austin Grigg, Dean of Richmond College, called homosexuality, “A distorted expression of one of the most basic, tender human emotions.” He further stated that, “I have never met a mature homosexual who was happy,” and described possible cures for homosexuality. The intersection of religion and sexuality would continue throughout the decades, as faith-based arguments were continually used to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. 

In 1964, a student survey revealed that one of the biggest student complaints was the religious requirements and policies, and students called for a greater ability to mature independently without overbearing rules. Required weekly convocations also caused frustration among students, with many blatantly disrespecting the service by playing cards, eating, or talking during it. This behavior was criticized in several Collegian articles.

The Baptist Student Union was an active student organization, but it often proved more progressive than the administration. It pushed for racial integration, signing a resolution in the spring of 1963 that resolved, “all applications from qualified Negro students be processed and considered on the same basis as those received from applicants of other races." Additionally, when a Westhampton student was punished for bringing a black date to a dance in March of 1963, many Baptist Student Union members were part of a movement to redact the decision. Over 270 students signed a letter in The Collegian criticizing the decision, and asked the question, “How can an institution of higher learning dare to limit a student’s prerogative to meet with other students no matter what their color?” This push for integration from the Baptist Student Union and The Collegian suggests a disconnect between the students and the administration.

Baptist involvement was pushed to the forefront of campus discussion in debates over receiving federal funding in the late 1960s. The University was struggling financially and needed money to make necessary improvements for an institution of its stature. The Baptist General Association of Virginia, while providing some money, was not giving enough to make ends meet. This galvanized students to begin calling for the University to accept federal funding. The question of “religious freedom” came up in this debate often, and it was questioned whether or not the school could retain its Baptist character along with accepting federal money. The issue seemed to peak in 1967; The Collegian reported that a petition declared the University was being “starved as a university by the Baptists of Virginia.” It garnered 1,200 signatures of faculty and students, and provoked a rally of more than 400 students. In February 1968, the Board of Trustees, facing significant community pressure, voted to accept federal funds and loosened certain social regulations, including extending fraternity hours to 1 a.m. on weekends.

The struggle over the direction of the school took a definitive turn with the gift of E. Claiborne Robins in 1969; his gift stipulated a change in the makeup of the Board of Trustees, carving out some independence for the University from the Baptist General Association of Virginia. According to The Collegian reporting, “The gift transformed the University overnight from a sleepy Southern Baptist school into a well-funded institution with aspirations of becoming a top-notch private university.”

Student Agitation and Protest

Several issues galvanized students in the 1960s as the gap between the University’s policies and the realities of student’s behaviors and desires grew larger. Students campaigned for Richmond to make changes in such areas as acceptance of federal funding, curfew hours, women’s visitation rights in men’s dorms, a rating system for professors, alcohol policy, and eliminating a policy that a student could be dismissed without a just process overseeing it with potential for appeals. The student government associations mediated between the administration and students and were often a major force pressuring for changes. Student government races were hotly contested, often with coverage in The Collegian and multiple testimonials advocating support or endorsing certain candidates. Students also ran under specific parties.

Marshak recalls a high degree of student activism on campus. She says, “There was an ecology group, which organized an Earth Day at Monroe Park, anti-war demonstrations, and a women’s liberation group.” Despite this activism, she was almost arrested twice for political activity on campus—once for handing out information on birth control, and once for passing out draft information. “They took me down to the patrol office, but released me once they realized I was a student and couldn’t be arrested for trespassing,” she said.

Annual “campus forum” debates throughout the 1960s revealed a high level of discussion over current events, with topics ranging from the Vietnam War, fraternity life, and morality.