Alice Frey Emerson Becomes First Female President of Wheaton

In 1975, Wheaton named its first woman president, Alice Frey Emerson, former Dean of Students at the University of Pennsylvania. During her 16-year tenure, President Emerson continued the tradition of campus improvement and curricular innovation. In her first year, “Tish” instituted a Budget Advisory Group and a Long-Range Planning Committee to tackle a deficit and set goals and priorities. The Writing Competency Program and the Computer Literacy Program, established in 1977 and 1978, respectively, were later integrated into the curriculum. Wheaton achieved national recognition as a pioneer in the development of gender-balanced curricula. Overseas faculty internships, begun in 1983, became the cornerstone of Wheaton’s Global Awareness Program.

Physical changes included a major addition to the Library (1979-80), a complete renovation of Wheaton’s oldest building, Mary Lyon Hall (1983) and the renovation of the Student Alumnae Building into the Balfour-Hood Student Center (1986). The latter two initiatives were part of the Sesquicentennial Campaign, conducted from 1983-1986. Alumnae, parents, friends, corporations and foundations contributed more than $26 million for scholarships, faculty development, library acquisitions and other priorities. Such support was characteristic of the renewed sense of purpose and pride surrounding the celebration of Wheaton’s 150th anniversary, in 1984-85, with a year-long series of symposia, concerts, dance performances and exhibits.

In 1985, Wheaton awarded Emerson an honorary degree.

In January of 1987, Wheaton trustees recommended, in principle, that the 152-year-old women’s college open its doors to young men. After several months of protest, support and discussion among alumnae, parents and friends, the Board approved the move in May of that year. Planning for the change included the formation of a Coeducation Planning Council and task forces to study student life, athletics, student recruitment, local community development and the classroom learning environment. Wheaton’s first coeducation class of 412 men and women arrived on campus in September, 1988.

Emerson Gymnasium was named in honor of Alice Frey Emerson.

President Emerson left Wheaton in 1991 to become a Mellon Foundation Fellow.