March 8, 2018 by American College of Sofia
Introduction and interview by Theodora Konetsovska ’97
The ACS board of trustees meets twice a year, in the US in the fall and in Sofia in spring/summer. This past October, I had the privilege of hosting the Board in Cambridge, Massachusetts where my fellow trustees and I got together with a lively, enthusiastic group of ACS alumni studying or settled in the Boston area. We also took advantage of Harvard University’s campus to hold our two-day meetings. I thought it would be enjoyable for three of our members to be back on campus of their “alma mater” – ACS President Dr. Richard Ewing and Ann Ferren are alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, while Ann and Avis Bohlen graduated from Radcliffe College. I was in for a huge surprise, however, when I learned that the building we met in had been off limits for Ann and Avis while they were students here (1957-1961). Lamont Library, one of Harvard’s wonderful and rich libraries, in existence since 1949 and centrally located on the Harvard Yard, was a men’s only facility until 1967.
On that October morning, Ann and Avis set foot in Lamont for the first time many years after graduating, while students (boys and girls) absent-mindedly passed by to bury themselves in the stacks or cradle their laptops in the comfy lounge. I felt a bit emotional. Our two terrific board members, part of an amazing almost half-female board, had stood witness to momentous social changes in a few short decades. What I was taking for granted that morning – and had for my entire college career (my own college became co-ed in 1970) – was a very recent privilege, and a hard-earned one. I thought it would be fantastic to hear Ann’s and Avis’s thoughts on this “Lamont experience.” I’m so glad I asked – here are their amazing stories and perspectives.
What brought you to Harvard-Radcliffe as a student and when was that?
Ann Ferren: My parents, both academics, wanted me to go to the best possible college so I applied to Smith, Wellesley, Stanford, and Radcliffe. My brother was at Harvard and convinced me that I would not like going to a women’s college and Stanford seemed too far away. So I left Minnesota in 1957 and when I graduated did not return. Radcliffe was really co-ed but not co-equal I learned.
Avis Bohlen: I was a student at Radcliffe from 1957 to 1961. Although I applied to several colleges, Radcliffe was always my first choice; I never seriously considered any others. I was drawn by the prospect of a Harvard education, supposedly the best the U.S. had to offer. (Radcliffe was formally a separate institution, but we had all our classes with Harvard students). I liked the idea of a co-ed school as well as an urban environment. I had friends at Radcliffe, I had been to secondary school in the Boston area and knew Cambridge well.
What are your fondest memories of your school days in Cambridge?
Ann: For the fun part I loved rehearsals of the Boston Symphony, Hasty Pudding shows, Mocha Almond ice cream, and dating. Academically, I struggled in advanced chemistry and calculus and then surprised myself when I had the courage to drop science. I was the only person in my family not a scientist. I chose economics on a whim. Some great courses, faculty, and my senior thesis confirmed it was the right choice.
Avis: My fondest memories are of the friends I made, the intellectual stimulus of Harvard, the pleasures of Cambridge (among them, sadly now defunct: Elsie’s delicatessen, the Brattle Street theater, which showed Humphrey Bogart movies all during exam period). Skiing trips to New Hampshire and Vermont; summer excursions to the beach. The cultural riches of Boston – the Boston Symphony, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. More than anything, I was – am – grateful for the intellectual richness of Harvard. I majored in Russian History and Literature and had wonderful professors, among them James Billington, later Librarian of Congress, whose course on the intellectual history of 19th century Russia inspired me to change my major, and the eminent historian Richard Pipes. These were precious years of continual intellectual discovery.
The place you’re standing at in that picture – Lamont Library – was accessible only to male students. Were there other academic facilities that were gender-segregated? Did that feel strange to you at the time, was it explained / rationalized in any way or was it just “the way things are”? Did female students rebel against it in your day?
Ann: Many of the inequities were “just the way things are.”
My brother at Harvard had his room cleaned and no work requirements – any work in the houses was paid and for scholarship students. At Radcliffe we all had to wait on tables, answer phones, and take care of our own rooms.
My father died in November of my freshman year and Harvard immediately gave my brother full financial aid – Radcliffe had only $200 for me and I took it without complaint. Equally important, many of the economics reading materials were only on reserve in Lamont – again rather than complain, I found a Harvard student who would give me his notes and study with me. Fortunately, I chose the right person as he became an economics professor at Northwestern. All the parietal rules of being in by 10, not being able to study in a man’s room or have male visitors in your own room seem so old-fashioned. The one time I studied at a graduate student’s apartment I worried for days that I would be expelled. In retrospect, I am shocked that I did not think I should speak up. President Bunting arrived my senior year and told us to stop being such sheep!
Avis: It was definitely a strange feeling to be able to walk into Lamont Library for the ACS Board meeting last fall; it was off-limits to female students in the years I was at Radcliffe. I felt I was finally penetrating the holy of holies! Harvard in those years was definitely the richer, more privileged institution; Radcliffe the poor relation. The boys’ accommodations in the Harvard houses were much nicer and more spacious than our shoe-box rooms in the Radcliffe dorms. We had to wait on tables and clean our own rooms; no work was required of the boys. And our strict parietal rules seem incredible today. We were not allowed to have men in our rooms at any time of day or to go to the boys’ rooms or to stay out past a certain hour, I think 11 p.m. We accepted these restrictions as the order of things, “the way things are,” without, I am sorry to say, too much questioning. The rebels came later. At the time, most of us felt we were exceptionally fortunate to be at Harvard, not least of all because it was a co-ed institution – very much the exception in the late 1950’s. And though I could not use Lamont, I was able to obtain a stack pass for Widener Library which allowed me to explore its riches at will. Are undergraduates still allowed that kind of access today?
Did your academic studies at Radcliffe relate to your professional work later or did you go in a different direction? What do you do now?
Ann: I married after I graduated and had one year in Cambridge while my husband finished law school. I wanted to get a Master’s degree in economics but that would take two years so I settled for a Master of Arts in Teaching degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I never thought I would teach but loved it and taught high school economics before going back to get a doctorate in education. My career has been in higher education with lots of emphasis on curriculum development and faculty development. Although I continued to teach, I spent over 30 years as an academic administrator. My economics training was essential as higher education has never been an efficient operation and never had enough money to accomplish all its good ideas. When I retired, I became a senior fellow with the Association of American Colleges and Universities running projects, writing, and consulting.
Avis: Ultimately, yes. When I graduated from Radcliffe, however, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do next nor was I committed to a professional career.
In those days, life-long careers were not the norm for most women. Only a dedicated handful went on to become doctors, lawyers, academics; the rest of us imagined we would work for a time, then marry and have kids, then resume some kind of professional activity. How the world has changed!
A graduate degree was the default option for me as for many. After working in Washington, D.C. for two years, I went to Columbia University intending to get a Ph.D. but then left after acquiring the M.A. After five years working at an academic institute in Paris, where my father was Ambassador, I returned to Washington and ended up at the State Department where I served for twenty-five years as a career diplomat. My Radcliffe/Harvard education served me well: the best preparation for the practice of diplomacy, in my view, is a knowledge of history. My focus on Russia proved useful during the Cold War years; I participated on several occasions in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. But more important than any specific expertise, my Harvard-Radcliffe education gave me the tools to think and analyze and question.
Since retiring, I have taught at Georgetown, worked part-time for the State Department, and served on a number of Boards and Commissions. Currently I am writing a biography of my father, diplomat Charles E. Bohlen.
How did you become engaged with ACS?
Ann: I served five years as provost at the American University in Bulgaria. When I resigned, Sol Polansky, former Ambassador and member of the ACS Board, asked me to join the Board saying, “You know, no one ever really leaves Bulgaria. You will want a reason to come back often.” He was right!
Avis: I first came in touch with ACS when I was Ambassador to Bulgaria (1996-1999). ACS had only recently regained control of the Simeonovo property and was still encountering many problems with the government. Jim Clayton, then Chairman of the Board, now sadly deceased, approached me for help and we worked closely together in resolving them. (My favorite: ACS wished to take back a small building on the property that housed the telephone exchange of the Police Academy, now Building 5. When the Ministry of Interior resisted, we imagined the building must house all kinds of secret listening devices. But when I went to call on the Minister, he confessed rather shame-facedly that the telephone system was so antiquated that it would collapse if it was moved. Could the American Embassy provide help with a new telephone system? The Embassy could and did, and the College regained control of the building.)
I really fell in love with ACS – its history, the link that it symbolized between the United States and Bulgarian education, the beautiful campus. In those years, it was by no means certain that ACS would be able to survive. It was a very challenging time in Bulgaria, students had no money and it was often difficult for them to attend the school but the dedication of that first generation of students was truly inspiring. In the climate of that period, I think the newly resurrected College stood for something very meaningful – academic excellence certainly, but all the values of a liberal American education as well. It was a great privilege to be asked to address the first graduating class in 1997. I think of the ACS graduates from those early years, the late 1990’s, as the heroic generation and am happy to see so many of them serving on our Board today.
What do you enjoy most about your current responsibilities as a board member?
Ann: There is a sense of community and shared purpose when we meet. It is a privilege to serve with so many Board members who have deep and long connections to the College. Making decisions about the future in the context of the history and traditions of ACS makes the work especially meaningful. The opportunities we have to be with students are always refreshing and uplifting.
Avis: Jim Clayton knew my attachment to ACS and asked me to join the Board in 2003, the year after I retired. I have served on the Board ever since and it has been a wonderful and rewarding experience. The Board, like the school itself, has changed. In 2003, there were no Bulgarians on the Board and all Board meetings were held in the U.S. (an inevitable consequence of the many years that ACS existed only in its U.S.-based Board). Today, I am thankful to say, we benefit enormously from the participation and dedication of our Bulgarian members, including several recent ACS graduates whose first-hand experience of the College is invaluable. I enjoy being on the Board because of the commitment of my fellow Trustees as well as the collegiality and sense of common purpose that characterize our work together. Last but not least, the contact we have with the students every year when we come to Bulgaria, often at graduation, is a continuing source of inspiration.
What would you tell young ACS women today for whom doors may not be officially closed due to gender differences?
“Don’t ask permission.” Volunteer, give away your time, do what you think is important and enjoy it. If others appreciate what you do or are willing to pay you for it, so much the better. The amazing thing to me has always been that you get back far more than you give.
“Say yes and worry later.” Recognize opportunities to do more and make a difference. When asked, don’t worry about whether you have the right credentials or know how to do it.
“Keep learning outside your field.” Every year I was at American University (in Washington D.C.) I audited a course for free. Over time I had developed a foundation in human resources, law, finance, technology, and more. All of it paid off when new projects and positions came up.
Avis: At the risk of sounding condescending, I would begin by saying that as women they are lucky to live now. There were few women in the U.S. Foreign Service when I joined and even fewer in the top ranks; until very recently, women had been required to resign on marriage. Today the opportunities for women are infinitely more numerous and more varied; women represent nearly half the entering class of U.S. diplomats. Balancing family and work will always be a challenge for women but for many women in my generation, it was either or; today, businesses and institutions are infinitely more flexible and supportive. Having said that, it seems to me that the challenges and pressures facing young people today are enormous. They face a highly competitive world that lives on a 24/7 cycle, where jobs are not easily come by and cannot be taken for granted.
In short, every generation faces its own set of challenges. ACS graduates are better equipped than most to take them on. In the final analysis, the life-long challenge is to live up to your potential, always to test the limits of your capabilities – you can almost always achieve more and go farther than you think at the outset. And take advantage of opportunities as they come along if it is something that appeals to you. My biggest regrets in life are the things I did not do when I had the chance, usually for some paltry reason.