A recruiting advertisement in the 1958 program for a football game between two Catholic boys’ high schools was short and simple: “BELLARMINE COLLEGE—Louisville’s only Catholic Boys’ College—2000 Norris Place.” How things have changed.
In the 50 years since the 1968 merger of the all-men’s Bellarmine with the all-women’s Ursuline College, Bellarmine’s undergraduate student body has undergone a startling transformation: Women now greatly outnumber men.
According to annual enrollment figures, the percentage of incoming students who are women at BU has remained above 60 percent for at least the past 15 years, including a high of 69.1 percent in 2015. The current undergraduate population is 64 percent women and 36 percent men. If you include the graduate students, 68 percent of the 3,757 students who enrolled in the fall of 2017 identified as women.
This interesting development at Bellarmine, which mirrors a national trend, deserves analysis from historical, demographic and cultural viewpoints, beginning in 1950.
A brief history of women on campus
The Ursuline Sisters established Ursuline College, with its campus on Lexington Road, as a Catholic college for women in 1938. It was a highly reputable institution, but by the 1960s it was struggling financially because of its size. As merger talks began, Ursuline needed 1,000 students enrolled for fiscal accountability; it had only about 550 students.
Bellarmine College, meanwhile, was never intended to be an educational community of gender diversity. “In the 1940s, Louisville was probably the largest city in the United States without a Catholic men’s college,” author Wade Hall wrote in his Bellarmine history, High Upon a Hill. “To complete the Catholic education system in his Archdiocese, the Archbishop (John A. Floersh) wanted this college.”
In 1954, Bellarmine’s first graduating class—nicknamed “The Pioneer Class”—was composed of 42 men, the survivors of the 115 freshmen who had begun four years earlier, many of whom were drafted into the Korean War. Although women were always permitted in evening classes (as no all-women’s college offered them), there was an occasional student uproar when it was suspected that a woman was attending day classes.
However, Jim Stammerman ’61 recalls that he and his classmates took numerous daytime classes with a woman: Doris “Jeanne” Smith, who was a secretary for Msgr. Raymond J. Treece, the school’s vice president. Her photo was even included in a large collage-type photo of the Class of ’61.
“I served as senior class president and editor of the yearbook,” Stammerman said. “And as such, I was partly responsible for getting the class picture put together. We put the name of each graduate on the back of their picture when we sent them off to the company that was to produce the class photo. We received a message back from the company saying that someone was obviously trying to play a trick on us by including a picture of a young lady with the name ‘J. Smith.’ It took some communication and convincing with the company that she was actually a member of the Class of ’61 at what was supposed to be an all-men’s college.”
Current Bellarmine alumni records, however, list Ms. Smith as a 1961 Ursuline College graduate. “Sounds like some kind of cover-up,” Stammerman said.
Even before the official merger in 1968, the two colleges coordinated other initiatives that led to the mixing of the genders. For example, Fr. Clyde Crews ’66, Bellarmine University historian, took a course in Greek at Ursuline in 1964 along with two other young men from Bellarmine and two young women from Ursuline. By the fall of 1965, at least 121 Bellarmine and Ursuline students were involved in specially coordinated courses on the two campuses.
Fr. Crews recalled a story from a 1958 issue of the Concord, Bellarmine’s student newspaper, that reflected those early Bellarmine—and societal—times. The headline read, “‘Women on College Staff Form Society,’” he said. “When you read the short piece, though, you found that the 16 members of the ‘Sanctuary Society’ had united to keep the chapel clean.”
After the merger was agreed upon, the board of trustees chose Bellarmine-Ursuline as the name for the new school. That name appeared on diplomas issued to graduates from June 1, 1968 to June 1, 1971. Although many of those 550 Ursuline women began attending classes at Bellarmine, the total enrollment increased only by 151 students, from 1,870 to 2,021, as other students left because of rising student costs and the opening of Jefferson Community College.
“We were excited to be something other than a boys-only club, though the ‘Bellarmine-Ursuline’ moniker was a sore point,” remembered Steve Kirn ’69, who was president of the student council during the first year of the merger and is now an administrator and professor at the University of Florida. “There was no question that women brought new perspectives and sensibilities to class … I think all of us were hungry for this sort of interaction … it was simply a way to experience one another as people.”
“I knew of no issues between male and female students,” agreed Cathy Case Bannon ’70, who was on Bellarmine’s campus during the merger’s first year. “I always found the male students to be friendly and welcoming. We seemed to enjoy the novelty of being on campus with one another.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t adjustments to be made. “I remember having to walk up and down the main staircase in the Administration Building on the side by the wall—this was because of the openness of the staircase and the shortness of our skirts,” Bannon said. “And, of course, we could not dash to an 8 a.m. class in our sleepwear and a trench coat, as we did at Ursuline!”
Athletics were also affected. The early days of women’s basketball were quite different from the current Knights’ experience. Bellarmine Athletic Hall of Fame member Marilyn Steinmetz ’73 was a member of the first women’s team, the Bellarmine Belles, in 1968.
“Our games were mostly scheduled in late afternoon or early evening. We had a college station wagon and one other college vehicle that we used for transportation,” she said. “I can remember getting out of class, driving to Midway, Berea or wherever, playing a game, then driving back home to Louisville. Many times, since I was working in the intramural department, I would drive one of the vehicles and coach Bill McKenzie drove the other. [It] made for some long days, but we were playing because we loved the sport. There were no athletic scholarships for women at that time.”
Mary Jane Englert Nabicht ’71 said she constantly pushed to have more women’s sports opportunities on campus after the merger. “When I was a senior,” she recalled, “[men’s basketball coach] Joe Reibel finally paid me $25 a month to organize women’s sports, but I think it was mainly to get out of his hair.”
Much to the chagrin of many Ursuline alumnae (but to widespread support on campus), the board of trustees voted to return to the name Bellarmine College in 1971.
Also in the early 1970s, seeking ways to increase enrollment, Bellarmine started a nursing program offering both an associate’s degree and a four-year BSN. “This quickly opened the door for an increase in female enrollments, and it continues to have a huge impact on Bellarmine today,” said Tim Sturgeon, dean of undergraduate admission. In 2016, more than 22 percent of Bellarmine’s total undergraduate enrollment was composed of women majoring in nursing and health sciences.
‘The big secret in higher education’
Bellarmine is no outlier in having more students who are women than men. Nationally, Sturgeon said, women account for more than 58 percent of the enrollments at private, nonprofit colleges and universities. The most recent statistics from federal education officials show that women account for 55 percent of the undergraduates enrolled at all four-year colleges in the United States.
Bellarmine President Susan M. Donovan refers to this gender difference nationally as “the big secret in higher education.” She came to Bellarmine from Loyola University Maryland, where women undergrads outnumbered men 55 to 45 percent. “We struggled to get it better than that,” she said.
The year 2015 was the first year that a woman was more likely than a man to have a bachelor’s degree, and that percentage is projected to continue to increase.
Gender gaps in both college enrollment and degree attainment have been growing since the early 1980s, said Carlyn Nugent, institutional research analyst in Bellarmine’s Institutional Research and Effectiveness (IR&E) office, whose graduate work focused specifically on gender and other demographic trends in U.S. higher education. But “it is important to note that male enrollment has not decreased; it has remained fairly steady. The gender gap is due to a steady increase in female enrollment.”
Sturgeon said the admissions office has taken various steps to attract more men, including maximizing the number of men contacted in BU’s high school search program; making sure to have enough images of men in publications and advertising campaigns; and, using language in publications that is attractive to men, such as focusing on intramural sport opportunities and intercollegiate sports.
In terms of areas of study, men outnumber women only in the schools of business and continuing and professional studies, Sturgeon said. “We are pushing women to think about male-dominated industries. We have a greater push to encourage women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math,” where women are also in the minority.
Students spend more time outside of class than in class, so it is important for the university to meet their needs and interests with programs, leadership opportunities and other services. As Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Helen-Grace Ryan facilitates co-curricular student learning experiences and holistic development. “While there is not necessarily a ‘male’ or a ‘female’ college experience, it is important to intentionally engage and listen to our under-represented students,” she said. “It’s important for us to know the students we serve and if we are meeting their needs and interests.”
Analysis of the numbers
In 2015, then-President Joseph J. McGowan commissioned six Bellarmine staff members to study this issue. The Taskforce on Male Enrollments collected both qualitative and quantitative data; observed enrollment trends and the campus environment; obtained internal reports and institutional data; and sought to identify the experience of other schools. They completed a report in February 2016, the month before Dr. McGowan’s unexpected death.
“There seem to be more ideas on why women began to attend [college] at higher rates than why men fail to enter,” Sturgeon said. “Most of this can be attributed to the changes in attitudes of traditional careers for women, and society shifting its beliefs about women in the workplace. Women now see the same opportunities as men. The problem is that the drop in male enrollments continues to befuddle colleges and those who track this data. Some have called it the ‘Bill Gates syndrome’—you don’t need a college degree to be successful. The tech world is looking for highly skilled employees who don’t necessarily have to have a college degree.”
Researcher Nugent cited three primary factors to explain women’s increased college enrollment: “The first is economic,” she said. “Women have a higher return on the investment in college.” The second factor is that females have higher academic expectations and are, generally, more encouraged and supported by family, teachers and peers to attend college. “The last factor that research has shown to contribute to the gender gap is academic preparation,” she said. Girls graduate high school at higher rates than boys, and higher-achieving students—in this case, girls—tend to enroll in college more often.
Dr. Donovan, who reviewed the taskforce’s recommendations, said they fall into three broad categories:
- Student programming. Expand and market majors and programs that resonate with prospective men. Examples would be business and technology-centered areas. “The Business program enrolls 60 percent men, but accounts for only 10 percent of our majors,” she said. “History and political science also tend to be of interest to men. Another successful initiative has been data analytics at the master’s level, but we haven’t explored it at the undergraduate level.”
- Campus life initiatives. Expand and improve club sports and the intramural sports program. Bellarmine could also “create more role models for men in the residence halls, where the RAs and orientation staff tend to be more women,” Dr. Donovan said. Expanded Greek-life options might also attract more men.
- Improvement of existing facilities. Dr. Donovan is not impressed with the SuRF Center. “It’s great to have, but I know what the competition has,” she said. “We can do better. You can’t overestimate the benefit of daily exercise on a college campus. Athletic space is really important.”
Vice President Ryan said that following the taskforce’s work, Student Affairs brainstormed with student men to try to better meet their needs and interests. As a result, some changes were made to the scheduling of evening activities and to the aesthetics of campus bulletin boards. In addition, activities such as a ropes course excursion and trips to Louisville Bats baseball games were introduced. “At the same time, we’ve experienced a groundswell in male co-curricular participation,” she continued. “Alpha Delta Gamma and Bellarmine University Games (BUG) are exceptionally strong, as is male leadership in club sports and intramurals and in various leadership positions on campus.”
Dr. Donovan also suggested taking a deeper look at housing options for attracting and retaining both men and women. “Going broader with the enrollment base to get more students to live on campus will help,” she said. “Apartments are lacking on campus—that’s something missing from the mix.”
Steve Kirn, the ’69 graduate and former student council president, said the enrollment at the University of Florida, his current employer, is 55 percent women. “While I am not concerned about the BU or UF ratios in an existential sense, I keep wondering—where are the men? What does this mean for the future employment and productivity of our society?”
The gender ratio is also a matter of concern to Dr. Donovan. “It is definitely something we need to work on. I don’t believe that it is a secret that we want to keep.”
By Harry Rothgerber ’69