In late 2020, a former president of Manhattanville College in Westchester County died. The college’s archivist dove into a trove of material about the unorthodox former college president’s life and legacy. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne spoke with Manhattanville Archivist Lauren Ziarko.
Ziarko says former Manhattanville President Elizabeth McCormack’s nearly century-long life reflected societal changes.
“They reflect changes to the Catholic Church and their religious orders. They reflect changes to higher education, to the lives of women over the course of the 20th century. So I think her life is just, while an extraordinary one, it's a really interesting microcosm of the United States,” says Ziarko. “And so I think of her, her life story as being an alum of Manhattanville and then guiding it through definitely its most tumultuous years. She made a lot of the hard decisions, but they were necessary at the time to make the school last. And she was willing to do that. She didn't shy away from change.”
“One of my favorite quotes by hers from, she was speaking to the students at Manhattanville in 1973 at convocation, which is the event that kind of launches the academic year. And so it was September, and she says, find values you can live by yet never fear to question them,” Ziarko says. “And at this point, we know from her biography that she is already doubting her own religious beliefs. She's doubting her life in a religious order. And I think that that's really, you know, interesting that she is reflecting that back to the students, that it's okay to change. It's important to have beliefs but that if they alter over time, that just means that you know, you're moving along with time.”
McCormack was the President of Purchase-based Manhattanville College from 1966-1974, and a nun for 30 years before being released from her vows in 1974. She married the college’s chief financial officer, Jerome Aron, after resigning from the college.
“The women of the Sacred Heart, the order, the Society of the Sacred Heart was the Catholic religious order that was devoted to education of women. And it was known to be the most academically rigorous. And she was able to get a master's degree, get a PhD, in a time that that was very unusual. The women of the Sacred Heart order were among the most educated in the world at the time. And she came back to Manhattanville after years of teaching in other academies in 1958. So she graduated in 1944. She comes back in 1958 to serve as the assistant to the president. And it was clear that the Society of the Sacred Heart was grooming her for great leadership, that even at this time, it was, it was clear that she was a person who could lead people, people liked very much. And so she was being groomed to be the next president of the college and to succeed Mother O'Byrne, who was the president,” says Ziarko. “So in 1938, she comes on, she eventually becomes a dean. And then in 1966, she takes over as president, but it is very clear from her inauguration speech that change is going to occur. At this point, Manhattanville is a Catholic college but it is not owned by the Catholic Church, doesn't receive any funds from the Catholic Church. It is only, it is owned and operated by its board of trustees. And that was true since it was incorporated as a college 1917. And in 1917, the board of trustees was mostly members of the religious order, and priests, but by the time it comes to 1966, it is now business owners and other lay people make up the majority of the board of trustees. So in no way did she have to sever any ties because they're never were to begin with; it was a cultural Catholicism. And so the first change that they make in 1966 is they drop, the name of the college and Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, and they drop the ‘of the Sacred Heart’ because it's possessive, you know, and it doesn't actually belong to the Sacred Heart. So they drop those words. And they also begin to remove the religious imagery from the campus. So there were crucifixes in the classrooms, and they remove those. And there seems to be an uproar from the alums who are saying, this isn't the college that I went to. And she says, at one point, this is the quote I really love, she says, the college is very important to them, and therefore it worries them today's student isn't finding the same thing as they did. Of course, today's student may not be looking for the same thing.”
“And the other change that she did for the college was introduced kind of a very interesting system that we still have today at Manhattanville in certain aspects, which was the portfolio system. They undertook, after she had gone… they've moved the college co-ed, they've moved away from its Catholic background, they undertake this massive curriculum study that was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and she oversees this and they basically ask, they have a bunch of intensive interviews asking students exactly what do you want from college? Is there anything that we're missing out on? And a lot of people were saying, you know, just graduating with a transcript doesn't really cut it. It doesn't really show what, what I went through over the course of the four years, how I progressed. And so they create this idea of a portfolio system where, in addition to a transcript, a student is creating a portfolio showing their development as a student, as a thinker, over the course of their four years. They temporarily didn't, they stopped doing letter grades. And it was actually the students who asked for them to be to be reinstated. But she was, you know, moved Manhattanville from being kind of before in the 1960s, before she took over, Manhattanville had this reputation of being this elite school for Catholic women. It was where several Kennedy women went, that was kind of its reputation. By the time she leaves in 1974, it is now seen as this very radical, almost, educational, college, willing to take steps to keep pace and make changes.”
The school went co-educational in 1973. Before, in December 1969, African-American students took over a building, one of hundreds of takeovers across the nation demanding more representation on campus, many of which turned violent.
“Eighteen black students at Manhattanville take over our academic building, which is called Brownson Hall. And so this is called the Brownson takeover. And what was different is that President McCormack, from the beginning, issues a statement that nobody is to call the police, that they are aware that when you bring police onto campus, it can entrench people's views and it can often lead to an escalation of violence,” says Ziarko. “And so she herself acted as a mediator and actually climbed through the window of this building on two different occasions to meet with the students. They had a list of demands, which was they wanted a stipend for black students. They wanted a number of faculty members to be hired. And she was very frank with them and said, look, it's a financial issue right now. We, we understand, we agree with you, we see the issues. We believe in these changes, but we can't do them all because just financially, we don't have it. And so the students met with her on a number of times, they stayed for a week in the building. And then they left peacefully on their own accord. The students never faced any sanctions for their actions. And years later, she was actually still very close with some of these women decades later. She really, I think, found a kindred spirit in a lot of them of this kind of willingness to advocate and, and she fully believed and agreed with what they were saying, which is that we have to do better.”
After leaving the college, McCormack became a philanthropic advisor to the Rockefellers and foundations. McCormack remained on the college’s board until her death in December at age 98.