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40 Years of Women at Lehigh: Al Pense's Story

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In a career spanning more than fifty years, Alan (Al) W. Pense, professor emeritus in materials science and engineering, served as Chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, and Lehigh University’s Provost. 

As one so deeply involved in the university at every level, Al is a walking, talking history book. Fortunately for Spotlight readers, he was more than willing to share his recollections of the period 40 years ago during which the momentous decision was made to admit women to Lehigh’s undergraduate student body.

“Change Was The Milieu”

Al remembers the culture of the period as tumultuous. “It was the late 1960s, and there were student revolts across the country,” he said. “They were protesting the Vietnam War, demanding a voice. At Lehigh, the students said they didn’t have their fair share of governance, so they went on strike.”

The President at the time, Deming Lewis, met with the student activists. Together with faculty they created the University Forum. The goal was to provide a place for discussion and developing proposals where students could be heard.

While ultimately the University Forum wasn’t involved in creating a co-ed Lehigh, it was part of the atmosphere that demonstrated the university was ready. “Change was the milieu on campuses at that time,” Al noted.

A Distraction For The Boys

At the same time that change was in the air, single gender schools were facing a bitter truth: declining enrollment. So, while the rise of feminism and student activism played a role in admitting women to Lehigh, the decision was also one made for the health of the institution.

Lehigh’s Board of Trustees was, like most boards at the time, composed mostly of older men who had graduated from colleges and universities many years before. Al says that not everyone jumped on board with the idea at first. “Some older curmudgeons thought it would upset the culture,” he recalled. “They thought it would be a distraction for the boys.”

Al chuckled lightly at the memory. “Of course, they were always going over to Moravian College to meet girls anyway,” he said. “A lot of wives of Lehigh students from that time came from Moravian and Cedar Crest.”

In the end, though, the co-ed proposal was supported by President Lewis, and by Board Chair Monroe Rathbone ‘28, Chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Al said Rathbone’s support was crucial, “It was clear to me that Rathbone thought it was a good idea and it was about time,” he said.

“The response from some of the reluctant members was ‘well, okay, if you don’t have too many,’” Al recalled, “And the prevailing thinking was that they would all go into the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Education. But they were wrong.”

Mentors In Unexpected Places

While their numbers were small, Lehigh’s female undergraduates in the early 1970s included quite a few who were interested in pursuing engineering majors. Many were the daughters of alumni who had a familiarity with engineering through their fathers’ work.

Women found mentors in unexpected places. “We had one faculty member, Walter Hahn, who had a reputation as an old school kind of guy, really tough on his students,” he said. “You might have thought he’d resist teaching women. But in fact, he knew how to connect with the women students. And they appreciated his toughness. It was part of his popularity.”

Al was also supportive of his women students. “I remember one woman, she just didn’t have a lot of self-confidence,” he said. “She told me she doubted she’d use her degree professionally. She said to me, ‘I’ll probably just get married and have kids.’”

Rather than accept such a proclamation, Al gave her words of encouragement, telling her that she was more than capable of being an engineer. “She called me a year later,” he said, “from her engineering job in Pittsburgh, to thank me.”

Still Room For Improvement

Fifty four years after first setting foot on Lehigh’s campus, Al Pense still comes to his office each day. And as long as he does, he hopes he can play a part in making Lehigh a great university for everyone.

With more role models in the professional and academic worlds, women are graduating in larger numbers than ever from Lehigh. Still, Al isn’t completely satisfied. “I believe we can still do better,” he said.

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