The Move Towards Coeducation

Just as SI in the 1960s and 1970s reflected the turbulence of the society that surrounded it, SI in the 1980s enjoyed a period of stability along with the rest of the nation. SI’s boat didn’t start rocking until June 5, 1985, when, after an end-of-the-year debriefing, the subject of coeducation arose. Someone asked, “What will SI be like in five years?” recalled Fr. Prietto. Another staffer said that, inevitably, SI would be coed by then. Thus, just as the meeting was about to end, a new discussion arose concerning SI’s future. Because the school was doing well, the administrative staff concluded that they should “take the bull by the horns and be pro-active rather than reactive,” said Prietto. If SI were to go coed, “we should do it the right way and for the right reasons.”1

Fr. Prietto felt “in a state of shock after that discussion…. To have this radical consideration at that particular time was for me both disconcerting and exhilarating.” The staff agreed that for discussion to continue, Frs. Prietto, Carlin and Sauer would have to be on board. “It was decided that I would approach Fr. Carlin, who was not at the meeting,” said Prietto. (At the time, before the formation of the Board of Trustees, these three men, and later Fr. Raymond Allender, SJ, who became rector of the Jesuit community in June 1985, constituted the ownership body of the school and made all the major decisions.)

A week later, walking into Fr. Carlin’s office, Mario expected Fr. Carlin to dismiss the idea out of hand. “After I carefully reviewed our staff discussion and recommendation, [Fr. Carlin] looked at me from behind those thick glasses and very calmly responded, ‘That seems like a good thing to consider. Let’s see where it goes.’ You could have knocked me over with a feather!”

Also, the all-boys’ school Sacred Heart had just announced it was considering a merger with the all-girls’ Cathedral School, and Br. Philip Clarke, principal of SH, had noted in his alumni magazine that, after the merger, “Sacred Heart would be the College Prep of San Francisco.” (The two schools eventually merged in 1987.) This made Fr. Prietto more determined than ever to pursue the idea of SI going coed, though he ruled out the idea of merging with one of the city’s Catholic girls’ schools for fear that SI might lose its Jesuit identity.

In September 1985, Mario asked Steve Lovette to be a part of the deliberations. Lovette, who had been student body president in 1963 and a tight end on the ’61–’63 football teams, came to SI in 1969 as a teacher and counselor. He rose through the ranks to become assistant principal for academics after earning a doctoral degree in administration from his alma mater, UC Berkeley. “Steve is a person of great intelligence and deep loyalty to SI,” said Mario. “Through all the ups and down of SI going coed, Steve was a consistent voice of reason and innovation.” (Since 1988, Lovette has served SI as Vice President for Development and has guided the school through two successful fund-raising campaigns — Genesis III: Building for the Future and Genesis IV: Endow SI.)

Spurring the move toward coeducation was a sudden shift in demographics over the next few years. The number of non-Catholic students had risen from 16 percent for the class of 1986 to 24 percent for the class of 1989. Coupled with that were declining numbers of students applying for admission to SI. On March 22, 1986, a week and a half after the admissions letters went out, SI invited all those accepted to come to school for registration. Both Mario and Art Cecchin, then admissions director, were shocked at how many no-shows they had. After the third tally, “we looked at one another with a feeling of dread and shock,” says Mario. “It was as if someone had taken the wind out of our sails on a hot day in the middle of the ocean.”2 Cecchin, who had earlier stated in the faculty room, “Better dead than coed,” started rethinking his position and eventually came around to support the move. (His daughter, Meredith Cecchin ’97, enrolled in the fifth coed class and now teaches dance at SI.) But for Mario and Steve Lovette, those low numbers made them “more and more convinced that coeducation was inevitable and [we] felt the urgency to move things forward expeditiously.”3

Fr. Sauer, however, was less enthused by the idea and asked Mario and Steve to write a Five-Year Plan for SI to examine the various ramifications of such a drastic change. “It is a credit to Tony’s shrewdness and sagacity that we did this,” said Mario. Steve Lovette began that study in September 1986, and Mario, in the ensuing months, told several people in confidence about the study and the possibility of SI going coed, including the head of the California Province of the Society of Jesus, the principal at Mercy High School, the superintendent of schools for the San Francisco Archdiocese and Archbishop John Quinn.

In April 1987, that Five-Year Plan was complete. It recommended that “the best way to ensure a solid market for our services for the next 15 years would be to begin coeducation as soon as possible” and that coeducation should be undertaken while the school was “in a strong and stable posture” and not “as a last resort.”

Frs. Prietto and Sauer discussed the Five-Year Plan with the Board of Regents in May 1987 and soon after publicly announced in Genesis II that SI was considering the coed question and planned to make a decision by November 1, 1987. In his letter to the alumni, Fr. Sauer asked for comments. He received a flurry of letters from parents, alumni and others with 74 opposed to and 49 in favor of admitting girls to SI.

The most heated responses came from the administrators of the girls’ schools. On May 29, a meeting was held at SI with the archdiocesan officials and principals from St. Rose and Mercy, two of the schools that would be most affected by a coed SI. Fr. Sauer, in a letter to Archbishop Quinn, described the meeting as “a quite frank interchange [that took] place [over] a good two hours, which was continued over lunch for those who could stay.” Clearly the girls’ schools were not happy with the prospect of competing for students with SI. As Fr. Sauer noted, “Dr. McLeod (principal of St. Rose) expressed the view that any SI coeducation would have a deleterious effect on St. Rose applications. Her view that admitting girls in all four years at SI would harm St. Rose admissions [was] listened to closely and sympathetically.” He then suggested to the Archbishop a compromise: “Perhaps a gradual transitional phase-in, if SI were to go coed.” The group agreed to reconvene in September, but in June, several of the principals wrote to the Archbishop complaining that “appropriate consultation [had] not taken place.”4

In September, Mario met privately with the Jesuit community, which offered an 11–8 vote (with 5 undecided) in favor of coeducation. The faculty, too, met in the fall to discuss the issue and they generally favored the transition. “Over the years, I learned never to underestimate the insight and perspicacity of a Jesuit high school faculty,” wrote Prietto. “They would drive me crazy from time to time, but when it came to SI going coed, they were on the forefront of the battle lines, right at my side.”

The English Department’s report particularly impressed Prietto with its insightfulness. In it, the department noted that “segregation of the sexes no longer fits the social matrix of our world. When SI was founded, and in the subsequent decades, the world was segregated socially. That situation simply has passed; we must assume our place in that new situation, and we must prepare men and women to work in that world with skills and attitudes that can foster Christian and reflective social values.”5

At the first faculty meeting, Mario was touched by Tony Sauer’s candor in explaining how he had at first been opposed to coeducation, but was doing his best — in true Jesuit fashion — to discern the right course. He encouraged the faculty to be open to the process and told them “to this minute I have not made up my mind, but we’re all trying to stretch and do the right thing for SI vis-à-visthe Archdiocese…. I trust the process as I trust you.” Mario was moved by Tony’s words and noted that SI “was blessed with a courageous and holy leader during those crucial times of fundamental change.”

Students also met to discuss the issue. The Student Council took a straw poll. The results: 2 in favor, 18 opposed and 7 undecided. Members of the senior liturgy group also discussed the issue. At the end, they were split 15–15 with six undecided. At a parents’ meeting, most of those who came expressed their opposition to the move, though one parent noted that she “came into this meeting opposed to going coed. After listening to the weak arguments against it, I’ve changed my mind.”6

In mid-October 1987, SI received word that the California Province approved theFive-Year Plan and “expressed support for whatever decision the SI trustees made.” Then Sr. Glenn Anne McPhee, OP, the new superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese, called for an October 26 meeting of all the principals of the Catholic high schools, major superiors and directors of education. Those individuals met with Archbishop Quinn to begin a “collaborative planning process to insure quality Catholic education for the archdiocese.” As Fr. Prietto recalled, “the atmosphere was tense. SI was definitely on the hot seat…. That very day the Archbishop had received a letter signed by 150 students at St. Rose imploring him not to let SI go coed.” At the meeting the group discussed the “grim picture” regarding declining enrollment and demographics facing all archdiocesan schools. Later, Fr. Prietto wrote to the SI faculty that the discussion at the meeting was “candid, frank and charitable. Certainly there are strong feelings about our coed decision, but people were reasonable and open….”

The next day, at an October 27 Board of Regents meeting, with 33 of the 36 regents in attendance, the group discussed coeducation and then voted on the issue. The result: 27–5 in favor of the change. (The group, at that time, included only four women regents, and, of those, three voted for the change.)

Then, on November 1, the four SI Trustees — Frs. Sauer, Carlin, Prietto and Allender — met at their Villa (the Jesuit term for a vacation home) in Novato for a day of “prayer, discernment and decision.”7 The group went over all the reasons for and against going coeducational and soon found themselves split 2–2, with Frs. Prietto and Allender for the change and Frs. Carlin and Sauer opposed. “I wasn’t really for it at first,” Fr. Sauer noted. “But after much prayer and reflection, I came to think it was the best thing to do.” Fr. Carlin followed suit and the vote became unanimous. SI, they hoped, would go coed by September 1989. The four decided to wait that extra year “because of the possible adverse effects on the admissions pools of the local Catholic girls’ high schools.” On November 2, Fr. Prietto alerted the SI faculty of the vote and of the school’s desire to seek approval from the Archbishop.8

The following night, November 3, Fr. John Murphy, SJ (chairman of the SI English Department), and Fr. Ed Malatesta, SJ (a professor at USF), had dinner with the Archbishop where they informed him of the trustees’ vote. The Archbishop was not pleased and asked SI to delay its decision and to continue collaborating with the girls’ schools. In the spirit of Jesuit obedience, the trustees agreed, and on November 4, published this document: “In the past year, the Saint Ignatius College Preparatory school community … has decided to delay any decision on coeducation until further dialogue with the other Catholic high schools can take place.” The following day Archbishop Quinn met with all archdiocesan clergy to announce that he was taking a six-month sabbatical for health reasons.9

Nearly everyone at SI who had been in favor of coeducation felt battered and beaten and that the years and months of discernment had come to a disappointing end. Fr. Sauer, however, was not among this group. In a memo, he noted that “SI must go coed for itself, but I felt myself we must delay to help the sisters…. The change the Archbishop made in the proposal we trustees presented to him was essentially making it more open-ended, less definitive as to time.”10

The girls’ schools responded with relief and gratitude, and Fr. Prietto received letter after letter thanking him for the delayed decision. He also received a November 6 letter from Sr. Glenn Anne McPhee inviting SI and 16 other schools to attend a December 10 meeting at USF. That meeting would be the first of many held over a five-month period. Sr. Glenn Anne, a member of the San Rafael Dominicans (the same order that administered St. Rose Academy), proved to be a stellar moderator of these meetings. “We could not have gotten through the trying times … were it not for the patience, wisdom and foresight of this wonderful educator,” wrote Fr. Prietto. (SI showed its appreciation to Sr. Glenn Anne during the commencement exercises for the first coed class in 1993 when it bestowed upon her the President’s Award.)11

The December 10 meeting ended with the decision that each school would submit a statement of its plans for the next two years. At the January 20, 1988, meeting, Fr. Prietto addressed those assembled explaining the reasons for SI’s decision to go coed, noting that he “cherished many fond memories of the camaraderie, bonding, spirit and deep friendships that are made [at an all-male high school]…. I’ve also become aware of certain attitudes towards women that seem to be endemic to an all-male environment. Too often women are looked upon as inferior, that they are threats or simply objects as distinct from a viewpoint that sees them as equals, friends and colleagues.” He told the group of principals that he had come to the conclusion that “maleness is not the essence of Jesuit education” and told them of Mike Shaughnessy’s daughter, Martha, asking why she couldn’t attend SI and his inability to give her a convincing answer. “Finally, I cited the example of an alumnus of the school, who was a lawyer downtown and a graduate of a prestigious eastern law school. He had called to tell me why he would advise against going coed. He told me about the ‘pushy, aggressive female lawyers and how difficult they were to deal with. And I shared my response: ‘Maybe your inability to deal with your female colleagues might have something to do with the all-male high school you attended…. I’m not saying that women need SI or Jesuit education, for that matter. If anything, SI needs women.” The group offered a mixed (sometimes combative) response to Fr. Prietto’s talk, and the meeting ended with a call for two studies — one short-term, looking at the effects of SI admitting girls, and one long-term examining the future of secondary education in the archdiocese. But for Fr. Prietto, this meeting proved a decisive turning point thanks to support from Sr. Glenn Anne and Assistant Superintendent Paul Bergez ’64.12

At subsequent meetings, SI heard requests from the girls’ schools not to accept transfer students from their high schools, but only freshmen. SI had planned to accept as many as 100 older girls, who would be role models for the younger coeds, but the girls’ schools argued that even this small number, taken from their ranks, would hurt them. SI agreed to this request at a March 29 meeting, and Sr. Glenn Anne asked that SI make public its decision to go coed no later than June 2. After that meeting, Fr. Prietto went “back to my car in the parking lot of the Chancery…. I remember sitting in my car, unbuttoning my collar and saying to myself: ‘My God! We are actually going to go coed. I can’t believe it!’ A feeling of quiet relief came upon me. The next week would be Holy Week. The joy and freedom of the Resurrection was on the horizon!”13

That April, SI formed a Transition Team to prepare for the move to coeducation. Then, on May 10, Sr. Glenn Anne met with Archbishop Quinn, who had just returned from his sabbatical, informing him of the meetings. Sr. Glenn Anne told the Archbishop that she supported SI’s decision, and the Archbishop gave his blessing. (The previous week, the Archbishop had attended SI’s spring musical,My Fair Lady.) In a May 13 letter to the Archbishop, Fr. Prietto thanked the Archbishop for his support and offered this reflection: “Needless to say, the past seven months have not been without their difficulties. However, as I look back upon it all, it is clear to me that the decision to delay our announcement was providential. A new working relationship has been established among all the Catholic high schools, and, I believe, the religious communities that staff them. This augurs well for the future of secondary education in our archdiocese.” The Archbishop wrote back on May 17 thanking Fr. Prietto “for the collaborative effort in which this final decision was made.”14 SI made the announcement to go coed May 26 to the faculty, May 27 to the regents and Archdiocesan principals, and in July to the general public through the summer 1988 Genesis II. In that magazine, Fr. Sauer wrote the following: “We commit the school’s significant resources to the development of programs, facilities and staff that will ensure the same quality of education for young women as that presently available for young men.” Over the next academic year, SI made good its promise, preparing teachers with in-services and drawing up plans to remodel the school with the help of the $16 million Genesis III capital campaign.