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Dean Bacon's demise

A sign of things to come

That particular meeting of the Political Issues Club had already gotten noisy when Mary Ellen Carter stood up and lobbed a verbal hand grenade in the direction of Deborah Bacon, U-M’s dean of women.

It was Monday, March 4, 1958, and the topic was the University’s heavy hand in the regulation of student housing.

Michigan Daily article on Dean BaconMary Ellen Carter was a senior, but, like every other female student at U-M, she still had to live in a residence hall, a sorority, or a “League House,” one of the University-approved boarding houses for women students.

League houses were privately owned, but they had to follow the University’s rules for women, including when to be home at night and when they could have gentleman “callers.” The chief enforcer of these rules was the dean of women.

Carter’s little bombshell: She had invited a “Negro caller” to her League House, and her landlady had barred him at the door.

“I was forced to live in University housing which did not permit me to have the callers I chose,” Carter declared. “I feel I’m entitled to have a Negro caller as well as a white caller.”

Dean Bacon stood her ground.

The landlady’s rules were her own affair, Bacon said. The University couldn’t tell a private property owner whom to let in her house.

Dancers 1945-55

During Dean Bacon’s tenure, women adhered to a number of rules, some of which impacted the gentleman callers they were allowed to entertain. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Another senior, Robert Yesner, rose to challenge the dean.

The University didn’t hesitate to forbid the consumption of alcohol in League Houses, he said. Why couldn’t it forbid racial discrimination?

“That may be logical, but it may also be illegal,” Bacon shot back. “The University does set up certain standards of behavior for its students. But [the landlady’s] home is her property. You’re paying her rent.”

With that the dean and her student antagonists “became worked up into an unbecoming emotional state,” reported the Daily,“and on several occasions the dean threatened to leave the room.”         

The shouting over Mary Ellen Carter’s “Negro caller” didn’t change anything in the short run. But it was a sign of things to come, and before long, Dean Bacon would have no ground left to defend.

Losing ground

When she had taken the position of dean of women in 1950, the reign of “in loco parentis” — the University’s rules for students’ private lives, especially the lives of women — was seldom challenged. She’d been a psychiatric nurse in New York’s Bellevue Hospital and an Army nurse in Normandy during World War II. So wayward students held no terrors for her, and she lost no time in establishing herself as a strong authority. (She also could go toe-to-toe with faculty; she had a PhD in English and doubled at Michigan as an assistant professor.)

Dean Bacon favored strict dress codes for University women. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Bacon was a strict enforcer of curfews and dress codes — no Bermuda shorts in the library, for example, and only skirts and dresses for dinner in the residence hall cafeterias — and she was tough on “wolves” among the male students. (In a meeting she once was heard to declare: “Tell those men to keep their hands off my women!”) When Michigan men launched the nation’s first panty raid on a spring night in 1952, it was Dean Bacon who dispersed a crowd of women from the all-female Hill dorms who tried to stage a counter-raid on the men’s dorms.

“We take the place of the home and church,” she once said, “in a preservative, conservative fashion.”

Not-so-silent generation

Bacon’s manner rubbed many students the wrong way — women as well as men. The post-Korea cohort of students was called the “Silent Generation,” but as the 1950s wore on, they became increasingly outspoken about University regulation of life outside the classroom. The modern movement for black civil rights was underway in the South, and a movement for student rights was starting to stir in its wake. At Michigan, students cast Deborah Bacon as the chief villain and guardian of the old order.

In the fall of 1958, women residents of Stockwell and Mosher-Jordan Halls organized boycotts of their dining halls when Dean Bacon ignored their petitions in protest of substandard food. Then came a steady drumbeat for the University to allow women students to live in apartments. When the University relaxed those rules a bit, students demanded that women be allowed to live wherever they chose. Reports also circulated that Dean Bacon took disciplinary action against white women who dated black men or had black women friends.

By the time Tom Hayden, soon to be a founder of the radical Students for a Democratic Society, became editor of the Dailyin 1960, students were in full-scale revolt against Dean Bacon’s reign. Early in 1961, student protesters compiled a list of grievances against her and sent them to the Regents, saying:

“It is difficult if not impossible to draw distinctions between Miss Bacon’s roles as individual and as the Dean of Women, or between her personal attitudes and her official policies … Where we debate Miss Bacon’s stated rules we are often debating her methods of carrying out these rules; when we challenge her attitude we are often challenging the policies in which that attitude is manifested.”


For a time Bacon was defiant. She traced the opposition to “perennial male-resentment,” saying: “It is axiomatic that young men deplore the Dean of Women.” She said many women students actually welcomed the strict enforcement of curfews. “I’m their shield and buckler,” she declared, “a friend in time of trouble.” Without “techniques … to control pregnancy at any time and at practically no cost,” she said, college women, if they were to succeed as students, needed protection against men that only University authorities could provide.

But the students’ grievances had an impact. The Regents turned their petition over to a faculty committee on student affairs. After a long review, the committee recommended a major shake-up in the University’s management of student life, including the abolition of the offices of the dean of men and the dean of women. A second faculty committee showed signs that it would concur.

In the end, Dean Bacon jumped before being pushed. She announced her resignation in September 1961. Earlier, when she had crossed swords with President Harlan Hatcher, she had said: “I can’t tell the University of Michigan’s trolley car where to go, but I can always step off it, can’t I?” Now she was stepping off. She continued to teach in the English Department until retiring from the University in 1969.

Not long before she died in 2005 at the age of nearly 100, Bacon spoke at length to a U-M student, Lindsay Helfman, who wrote a senior honors thesis about the dean’s tenure.

The students’ demands for more freedom circa 1960 “seemed very important at the time,” Bacon said, “but actually they were mostly minor.

“What mostly changed was the culture … There was a great cultural change, very hard for everybody.”

Sources included Lindsay Helfman, “The Dean’s Last Stand: Deborah Bacon and the Student Politics of the Fifties,” senior honors thesis in history, 2006; Linda Robinson Walker, “The Last Dean of Women,” Michigan Today, Summer 2002; and The Michigan Daily.



  1. Kevin Atkins

    I am sure the sense of this article is about the wonderful cultural freedom that was wrought by the Sixties. Full circle – Yes means yes!! The state is in the bedroom. And no one wants to make the connection.


    • James Tobin

      Mr. Atkins:
      As the author, I can tell you that you’re reading meaning between the lines that is not there. I offered this little story fully aware that different readers would interpret it differently. As one who went to U-M in the 1970s, and now has put two children through U-M, my own feelings about the passing of in loco parentis and the “cultural freedom that was wrought by the Sixties” are distinctly mixed.
      James Tobin


  2. Mitzi Robinson - 1964

    Dean Bacon invited groups of students in her English classes to her home to view pictures of her travels. I was influenced by those photos and her connection with us outside of the classroom to take a semester abroad in England.
    University regulations were changing and during the 1963-1964 academic year women for the first time, were allowed to live off campus. Four of us shared an apartment on Fuller in our senior year. This was a significant change since our freshman year in Mary Markley when we responded to a bell that announced curfew and we all raced inside the front doors of the dorm.


  3. George Davis - 64 / 66

    Extremes are often recognized more clearly in the rear view mirror.


    • Peter Eisinger - BA 1964; MA 1965

      Dean Bacon’s zealous bigotry occasionally led her up the wrong path. My good friend, a guy who grew up in an Indiana Methodist household, began to date a Jewish girl from New Jersey. My friend had dark black hair, and his girlfriend was a blonde. Assuming she was defending Christian female virtue, Dean Bacon telephoned the girl’s parents to report that she was dating a Jewish man. “Why, that’s wonderful,” replied the parents. “We always hoped she’d meet a nice Jewish boy.”


  4. Susan Ervin-Tripp - 1955 PhD

    Even as a graduate student, I was grateful for the safe housing. People complain now about parietal rules, but the high rate of rape now in universities shows the wisdom of those rules. In my time, such events only happened when women got drunk at fraternities. Time to look back at what worked.


  5. Judy (Mansor) Brainard - 1960 BSN

    There were a lot of views like that in the 1950s that would not be tolerated today. Remember the edict of no women going in the front door of the Union? I believe that was stopped before I enrolled at UM but it really seems ridiculous in hindsight.


    • Everett Woods - 1965

      I believe Judy has misused he word “edict”. The word “tradition” is probably the right word.


  6. Martha and Jon Monroe - BSNR 1979 and BS 1983

    Our mother lived at Martha Cook when she was an undergraduate at Michigan. In December 1952 she married our father when he was in the Army at Fort Smith Arkansas. He stayed, but she returned to Ann Arbor at the end of the holiday to graduate the following spring. She had to get permission to return to Martha Cook, as a married woman, even though her husband was in Arkansas. We guess it might have been Dean Bacon who granted her wish. Perhaps she had a reasonable side, that complemented her tight grip on tradition!


  7. G.M. Freeman - A.M. 1950

    So, I’m an old fogey but I have observed much more than many of those writing. IMO Dean bacon was on target with respect to certain rules of decorum; they were consistent with the era in which I grew up.
    Now alcohol has messed up the lives of many women *and* men. Not many wish to recognize this fact of life. I could expound more but who wants to listen? In my salad days we respected even if we disagreed. Today senior citizens are about as welcome as measles.


  8. Fred Hicks III - BA 1954. MA 1958. PhD 1963

    I crossed verbal swords with Dean Bacon in the 1950’s when I went after her when I was Treasurer of the Student Government. for what I believed was her over the top in loco parentis attitude towards the women students and for that matter towards the men. She never blinked an eye and cast my comments aside with a “zinger” of a response.
    I did not agree with her then and I do not now — but, I respect her greatly for holding to her core values and genuine concern for “her” students. Quite a woman, indeed! I remember her well.


    • Fred Hicks III



  9. Harriet Bridges Linville - 1965, Rackham 1968

    Dean Bacon taught a lively writing class that I took. What she taught me about writing greatly helped me get through seminary. Our class’s evening at her home was gracious and delightful.


  10. roger lowenstein - 1964

    i was a freshman in west quad in 1960. jewish students had been assigned to room with other jews. blacks with other blacks. the fraternities reflected the same segregation. dean bacon’s bigotry couldn’t have been imposed without full support from the entire administration. i remember that my first picketing as a member of the fledgling SDS chapter was of harlan hatcher’s house. the university refused to support an open housing ordinance in ann arbor that would have prevented boarding houses from refusing housing to foreign students of color. typical of the university in those days to refuse to act to prevent discrimination against its own students!


  11. Mary Ellen Vaydik - 1964

    While I was no big fan of curfews or dressing for dinner, I do remember one occasion when Dean Bacon famously bent her rules. During the 1960 presidential campaign, JFK was to stop in Ann Arbor and speak briefly on the steps of the Union. His arrival was delayed until well past weeknight curfew for women, but Dean Bacon suspended the curfew that night to allow those who had waited for hours to hear him.13365


    • Karyl Winn [formerly Joyce K. Leix] - 1964,1965

      How well my freshman roommate and I recall that lovely fall evening! We reminisced about it when she visited Mt. Rainier NP last year and in 2010 I viewed a small but excellent commemorative display in ‘the Library’–Hatcher? on a rare visit to Michigan.


  12. marie wacht - 68 BSN

    In my freshman year i was assigned to Oxford Housing, a coop.My “landlady” called me into her office and told me that I was assigned to live with a “negro” student. She offered to reassign our rooms so I would not have to live with this student. And I completely flustered her when I told her that I had applied to live with “someone from a background, culture, race other than my own”!


  13. Booth Muller - 1969

    Michigan was a little ahead of many of its contemporaries in its housing policies. I transferred to the U of M for the 1967-68 school year, and at that time Miami University in Oxford, OH, still had rules requiring all undergraduate women to live in dorms, whereas men could move off campus after their freshman year. Even as freshmen, men’s dorms at Miami had no requirements for being in the building at any time, but women’s dormitories had strict hours – in by 11:00 weekdays, and 1:00 on weekends. Doors were locked at those hours, and discipline meted out to girls who didn’t make it on time. (To avoid her being punished for getting back late, my girlfriend and I once stayed overnight at a friend’s apartment. I’m thinking Miami’s dean of women would have seen that as an unintended negative consequence of the school’s policy. I personally didn’t feel altogether negative about it that weekend.)


  14. HDavid Kaplan - 1956

    Dean Bacon was regarded as a terror and strict disciplinarian during my years at UM (1953-1956). She was just holding to the mores of the time and did not yet accede to the flexibilities that students had already accepted.


  15. Jeanne Lau Seals - 1959

    I remember Dean Bacon well and not with affection. She required my Jewish roommate and me (an Asian from Hawai’i) to sign a statement which said that we chose to room together rather than being assigned to do so by the University. When I went to college, I wanted to have new experiences and to meet people from different backgrounds. Dean Bacon seemed fearful of students “mixing”. I remember two black girls (only ones in my dorm) being assigned to room together who had very little in common: one was from a city on the East Coast and the other from a small town in the South. They did not” hit it off”.So much for her assigning “like” students together!


  16. Karen Burnette - 1966

    I lived in Helen Newberry the whole 4 years at Michigan. We had to be in by 11 on weeknights and midnight on weekends. If you got in late, you accumulated late minutes. When you reached 10 late minutes you got a weekend of social probation which meant you couldn’t leave the dorm after 6 p.m. Men were allowed on the living floors twice a year from 2-5 on a Sunday afternoon. Men had no hours, could have girls in their dorm rooms on Saturday nights, could be in the marching band and were the only ones who were cheerleaders. It sounds so strange now but that’s just the way it was then. I remember occasions when I was glad to have the curfew restriction.


  17. Wendy B Shepard - BSN60

    In my last month at Ann Arbor I was “caught” in the afternoon on the porch of a party in a male student’s apartment. I was 21, with my pin-mate and later husband. I was sent to Dean Bacon a week before graduation and she proceeded to yell, yes yell, at me stating that I was not going to be given my degree, that obviously I would not be a good nurse and I was a disgrace. Happily that was one time she was wrong. I graduated and made a damn good nurse thanks to everyone except Dean Bacon! I had no love or respect for her then, nor now. Go Blue!


  18. Robert Ross - 1963

    My memory of the Bacon Affair assigns a more important role to Tom Hayden than the article reports. He assembled a dossier of Bacon’s racist responses to women dating “Negro” men — including contacting their parents to control their (the students’) behavior. Frankly, although I was becoming a Student Government leader at the time as a candidate of VOICE political party — the eventual SDS chapter — I do not recall widespread student response or to or demand for Bacon’s removal. I think Hayden’s expose was central.


  19. tom hayden - 1957-61, 1963-64

    Thanks for this article about the roots of in loco parentis. As editor of The Daily that year, i remember numbers of coeds coming to us to testify and file affidavits about the invasive harassment they experienced. Typically the stories were about agents of the Dean spying on white women having coffee with black men in the Union. When the information was transmitted to parents, the result was a lot of emotional anguish. Eventually and gradually the policies were changed. The Dean was the scapegoat. Hopefully the affidavits exist somewhere in the UM files. TOM


    • James Tobin - 1978, 1986

      Mr. Hayden — Thanks for your good note. We’ll look for those files. You might want to see this earlier piece about the downfall of in loco parentis, with references to another ’61 alum, John Feldkamp, who became director of housing at U-M:
      — James Tobin


  20. John Goodreau - 1961--1966

    It’s great to be a progressive. Measure feelings not results.


  21. Fred Lynch - 1967

    Among the many wonderful professors I had during the 1960s at the University of Michigan, there were three favorites: Peter Bauland (English), Edward Laumann (sociology—now at U. of Chicago) and Deborah Bacon (English). (Astronomer Hazel “Doc” Losh is runner up!) I think the focus of two alumni magazine articles on Bacon’s career as U-M’s last dean of women provides only partial portrait of a complex woman with enormous responsibilities, answerable to over-protective, mostly white, traditional upper middle class “clients” (parents) during the transition from the conformist 1950s into the welcome but tumultuous changes of the 1960s. (We also tend to forget that, until 1972, the age of adulthood was twenty-one—and that the birth control pill wasn’t widely available until the early-to-mid 1960s.)
    I was aware of Dr. Bacon’s controversial reputation when I enrolled in her “Advanced Expository Prose” class as a senior in 1967. She did indeed have a razor-sharp mind, a remarkable range of biographical experiences, and a somewhat tough exterior. Those qualities made her a fascinating classroom educator. And my impression was of a woman evolving with the times—and perhaps even ahead of them.
    Dr. Bacon had just published a book on Lewis Carroll (she appeared on the “Today” Show) and had completed a draft of her own textbook on writing which she mimeographed (cost free) for each of the approximately twenty-eight students in the class. (I still have the text in a three-ring binder–alas, it was evidently never published.) The main lesson drilled into us: “the art of writing is rewriting.” Bacon’s class left me with a permanent, hyper-critical “inner editor” that easily tripled the amount of time and effort it has taken me as an academic to write three books (working on a fourth) and dozens of articles because I cannot abide my own first draft prose.
    As another reader mentioned, Dr. Bacon invited her classes to her house for dinner and a slide show of her numerous travels. She shared that home with another woman and during and after class occasionally referenced their shared excursions and social engagements. If they were what we’d term today a same-sex couple, she handled it with discreet, matter-of-fact courage and candor—an “openness” for which she paid a price. Homophobic rumors about her sexual orientation circulated and the campus humor magazine, the Gargoyle, in 1963 lampooned her as a man-hating lesbian. As for her outlook on race, I believe she participated for several years in an inter-campus exchange program in which she taught at historically black colleges on a rotating semester basis.
    In her latter days, Dr. Bacon reportedly wrote an autobiography. For former students and for those chronicling mid-century UM and its most colorful personalities, I suspect it might be well worth reading.


  22. Natalie Cousin - 2008

    How can someone speak to upholding the privacy and respect of those women students when involvement in their romantic relationships and enforcement of curfews effectively degrades those very same values? Personally, I think that women living independently and making their own decisions command more respect from men and other women alike.
    I’m baffled that she held so strongly to keeping adult women so restricted under the guise of safety and upholding morals as opposed to focusing on educating them and allowing them to make their own decisions. For those who think this super restrictive route is the way to go to prevent sexual assaults on campus: that misled attitude speaks to an approach of teaching women to not get raped, rather than teaching men to not commit rape in the first place.
    This lady sounds a little crazy, but I’m sure there were higher administrative forces supporting some of her decisions and actions as well. As I think about the environment and society that I encountered at U of M, I can’t help but be very appreciative of the culture of progressive student activism that fought for the rights of others back then and that continues today. Without people willing to speak out about ridiculous and discriminatory rules, I don’t know where we would be (though apparently I’d be inside, before my curfew, in my segregated on-campus housing, hanging out with perhaps the one other black girl in the building).
    Great article, it is always worth reading what it was like back in the day!


  23. alan haber - 1954-67

    As organizer of the Political Issues Club, subsequently becoming the local sds chapter, and a member of the student government council 1958-60, i remember too well the controversies and distress over Dean Bacon’s non-kosher behaviors. The worst was her going into confidential records of “218 Health Service” (the psychological counseling office) and informing parents of white women students of inter-racial relations revealed in counseling sessions. She saw herself as having a high moral mission of a now (mostly) by-gone age.


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