Deborah Bacon served as the University’s dean of women in the 1950s, at the end of an era when University officials acted as parents to female students – enforcing dress codes and curfews and discouraging interracial dating.
When students revolted against that system as the ’50s gave way to the more tumultuous ’60s, Bacon became the lightning rod in a controversy that would end in an upheaval of the University’s relationship with students and the elimination of her office.
“She was a person of very conservative views at a time when that was the norm, but the norm was changing,” University historian Margaret Steneck said of Bacon, who died in her Chelsea apartment at 98 Friday.
Bacon’s life was marked by conviction and energy. Born in 1906, she worked at a women’s prison and served as a nurse at a missionary hospital in Alaska. During World War II, she enlisted as an Army nurse, landing at Omaha Beach six weeks after D-Day and tending to Gen. George Patton’s army in frontline hospitals across Europe. After the war, she earned her doctorate in English at Columbia University and at age 44 was appointed dean of women at the University of Michigan.
When Bacon took over the Office of the Dean of Women in 1950, the University tasked her with carrying out its traditional philosophy: to act in loco parentis – in the place of a parent. That meant doing as most traditional 1950s parents would do with young daughters: controlling where they lived, how they dressed and whom they dated. Bacon took to the job with characteristic vigor.
“She believed in the social structure as it was at that time, and she believed in enforcing it,” Steneck said.
Enforcing that social structure meant keeping a close watch on female students to protect them from moral harm. With few exceptions, unmarried women were required to live in University-approved all-female housing, where they were subject to strict curfews and dress codes, and where University officials could scrutinize their dates and visitors. These methods, Steneck noted, were then common on campuses across the nation and widely popular with parents.
But as the decade went on and the ’60s approached, students grew increasingly discontented with what they saw as the University’s intrusive approach to their personal lives. And Bacon, in particular, became a target of their protest. Chief among the students’ complaints was Bacon’s alleged practice of discouraging white women from dating men of other races.
“None of this was new,” Steneck said. “Dean Bacon was enforcing it at a time when the cultural mores were changing, the Baby Boomers were arriving on campus, and the students just weren’t going to have this. It just no longer was rational or reasonable.”
Eventually, a group of Michigan Daily editors and other students, led by then-Daily editor Tom Hayden, gathered accusations and evidence from female alumni – including complaints that Bacon had severely punished women for visiting with black men after hours and had written to a white freshman’s mother to inform her that her daughter had been dating black men – and in A-A-A-A-A-A-1961 presented them to the administration.
Within months, the University established a committee, led by Law School Prof. John Reed, to examine its relationship with students. The committee’s report recommended a sea change in the University’s philosophy toward student life – beginning with the elimination of Bacon’s position. In September 1961, after months of controversy and uproar from alumni, Bacon resigned from her post and took up teaching in the English department.
“The Reed Report was the foundation of the place of students at the University today,” Steneck said. “They felt wholesale change was necessary in the relationship between the University and students, including dismantling the offices of the dean of women and dean of men. – Dean Bacon’s resignation, which was a forced resignation, was one of the first steps in that change.”
The Reed Report’s recommendations spelled out the end of the administration’s paternalism toward female students. Throughout the rest of the decade, the University would make most of its residence halls co-ed, abolish curfews and allow women to live off campus. And with the deans of men and women eliminated, the administration’s power to punish students for private infractions – a power Steneck said those offices had wielded absolutely and with little oversight – was severely reduced.
Steneck noted that the upheaval in the University’s relationship with students in the ’60s was one of the most powerful examples in the University’s history of student-driven change.
“I think there’s a feeling on the part of students today that you couldn’t make a difference,” she said. “These students felt that they could, and they went out and did it. The University changed, and absolutely for the better.”
After the University
Bacon continued to teach at the University as an assistant professor of English for seven years, taking two unpaid leaves to serve as the only white professor at the historically black St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., according to a Michigan Today profile from 2002. After retiring in 1968, Bacon spent the next three decades writing several books and traveling to more than 48 countries. She moved to the Chelsea Retirement Community in 1998.
“She was very alert to the end,” said Carol Peckham, director of resident services at the retirement home. Peckham, who knew Bacon for only the last three years of her life, described her as a voracious reader who loved classical music and the arts.
“She was very articulate, with an excellent vocabulary – the kind of person who listened to NPR,” Peckham said.
Lindsay Helfman, an LSA senior who is writing her thesis on Bacon’s role in the history of women at the University, interviewed Bacon in March.
“Although she was 98, she still exuded the sharp, formidable charisma which marked her tenure as the last dean of women,” she said.
Hayden, the former Daily editor who led the campaign against Bacon in 1961, expressed regret upon hearing of her death.
“I regret colliding with her and never seeking to reconcile,” he said in an e-mail.
Bacon never married, and she is survived by a niece, two nephews and longtime friend Elsie Fuller, among others. Bacon’s memorial service will be held at Chelsea Retirement Community at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 4.