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A brief health history of Skidmore, 1911-2009
by Susan Rosenberg
In 1911 Saratoga’s Young Women’s Industrial Club petitioned for a state charter to become the Skidmore School of Arts, proposing “to give instruction in the establishment of healthy and comfortable homes … in the making of clothing, useful and ornamental, in the preparation of economic and wholesome foods, sanitary laws and the laws of hygiene…” In 2007 Skidmore’s “action agenda” for implementing its long-range strategic plan included a call to “develop a strategic plan for Health Promotion,” a new office that helps coordinate services related to drug and alcohol use, fitness and nutrition, mental health, and other wellness issues. Clearly health has figured strongly in Skidmore’s educational mission from the start. But at the earlier school, bias referred to the weave of fabric; on today’s campus, bias describes the psychology of prejudice. In 1911 healthy eating was largely a matter of refrigeration and meat thermometers; today it’s about self-esteem, body image, and psychic turmoil.
Most American colleges have similar health histories, but how did this evolution happen? Heather Munro Prescott, author of Student Bodies: The Influence of Health Services in American Society and Medicine, offers an answer. Last year she told Inside Higher Ed that “the history of student health services is part of a longer history of diversity in higher education”—that is, a more varied student population came to need, and later demand, more varied campus support services. Twists and turns in the broader culture have contributed too. Students fought for the rights and freedoms of adult autonomy in the 1960s and ’70s, but in the past decade they’re clinging longer to parental guidance, taking what a National Public Radio report called “the slow lane to adulthood.” For tracing this history as it played out at Skidmore, there’s no better map than Make No Small Plans, by Prof. Mary C. Lynn.
In the World War I era, Skidmore’s dean was recommending daily cold showers, Lynn writes. Students were urged to wake up in the morning and throw their covers back, “to get the animal heat out.” Yet when the influenza pandemic struck, Leo Hoge, the facilities director, was asked to install weather stripping and to keep the boilers fired until 10 p.m. and start them up again at 4 a.m. Lynn notes that the school cut a deal with Saratoga Hospital to treat Skidmore faculty and students for an annual fee of $5 a head, and when students had to be quarantined on campus, officials created an impromptu infirmary and brought in a special nurse. In 1925 a committee report estimated one-quarter of the entering class was underweight and raised concerns about a possible “correlation between underweight and low mental ability.” In 1932 the BA degree requirements included the course “Community, Personal and Mental Hygiene,” and both BA and BS students had to take a physical education course each year.
In 1943, Lynn reports, flu again strained the capacity of campus health care, and in 1944 the twelve-bed, four-room infirmary was expanded to twenty-one beds in ten rooms. In 1947 Orpha Lough, a psychology professor, began offering psychological counseling to students. (At this time, Lynn notes, any concern about alcohol abuse continued to focus on decorum and “dignity,” not health.) By 1965 the dean of students, Claire Olds, “felt a strong need for more help in psychosocial counseling,” as she writes in her recent memoir Skidmore When I Was Dean Olds. “Almost all the staff from security officers to housekeepers were wonderful in helping ‘the girls’ through everyday traumas,” Olds recalls, but she was disappointed by the campus physician’s common response when faced with a more serious psychological case: “That student’s gone bad and has to leave.”
A turning point came with the arrival of an unusually active and capable chaplain, Tom Davis, who from the mid-1960s through the 1980s counseled many hundreds of students struggling with alcohol or other drugs, emotional adjustment issues, and crises from pregnancy to death in the family. Of course the social upheavals of the ’60s were a turning point too. Lynn writes, “The 1959 college bulletin noted, ‘The Dean of Students, the College Physician, and the Chaplain are available for help with emotional problems,’” but by 1972 “a counseling and drug education center had been established, directed by a full-time psychologist.” The ’60s also changed the face of reproductive health services. At first few if any area doctors would agree to prescribe contraceptives for unmarried women, then the local Planned Parenthood offered birth control for students, and then by 1974 Skidmore’s own infirmary was providing gynecological care, sex education, and contraceptives.
\Judy McCormack, director of Skidmore’s counseling center from 1976 to 2003, recalls its founding as largely “a response to psychedelic drug and marijuana use.” While her early work often entailed helping students “in their quest to define their own ethics and values in a time of change and confusion,” by the 1980s and ‘90s she saw more students troubled not by peer pressure or a generation gap but by “serious depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other disabilities.” Also, although Davis started an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter on campus in the 1970s and New York State raised the legal drinking age to twenty-one in the 1980s, alcohol remained a pretty constant problem for a significant fraction of the student body.
Today Skidmore’s new dean of student affairs, Rochelle Calhoun, has a clear-eyed take on the before and after: “Whereas colleges used to see themselves as custodians of the mind but not of the emotions or spirit or body, now there’s more understanding that you cannot excel academically if your life is falling apart in other areas.” That’s why “today’s student affairs is all about partnering with academic affairs, to educate the whole student.” Many student life and wellness issues seem perennial, even eternal—drinking, sexual pressures, emotional maturing, social adjustment. But Calhoun says the consequences and responses to them have changed dramatically, with heightened awareness, research, outreach, and support.
In the end, she observes, “We’re just trying, as Lucy Scribner did at the founding, to create an environment that supports the whole person, even if that person hasn’t traditionally had access to support services—for example, a woman in the lower socioeconomic strata in Lucy’s day, or a student with a psychological disability today—so that every student can learn and grow and succeed.”