Early in the 20th century, the State of New Jersey offered limited higher education for women. Then the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, active in the women’s rights movement at that time, convinced Mabel Smith Douglass to lead the effort to establish a women’s college as part of Rutgers University.
With dedication and persistence, Mrs. Douglass convinced the Rutgers trustees to support the venture. The Federated Women’s Clubs raised funds to support the project. The venture also received revenue from the Smith-Hughes Act, which supported home economics education. In September 1918, the New Jersey College for Women opened its doors to 54 students.
The New Jersey College for Women grew rapidly during its first full decade. Under Dean Douglass’ leadership, the college created new departments and built five academic buildings, using both private and state funds.
Voorhees Chapel and three residential campuses also date from this era and served as the focal points of an active and vibrant residence life program. The Class of 1922 created the first yearbook, newspaper, Yule Log, Sacred Path ceremony, and the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College.
During the Great Depression, construction came to a standstill. Enrollment stopped growing. Yet under Dean Margaret Trumbull Corwin, the college grew more diverse. The first Latina, African-American and Asian-American students graduated. The college also developed its first recruitment plan, and the Associate Alumnae become a vital organization with a professional staff.
The decade opened with the college community actively supporting the allied cause in World War II. Students and faculty formed relief organizations, rolled bandages and entered war production industries. With the war’s end, Dean Corwin led the planning for a larger institution with new programs and facilities.
The '50s ushered in a period of conservatism among students, who found a place for traditional activities in the newly constructed College Center on the Douglass campus. In 1955, the New Jersey College for Women became Douglass College, in honor of its founder. To mark the occasion, the college introduced a new Alma Mater and College Seal. Halfway through the decade, Dean Mary Ingraham Bunting moved into the Dean’s Home at 23 Nichol Avenue. She established new programs for summer research internships and college re-entry for mature women—the first such programs in the nation at a traditional college.
Dean Ruth Marie Adams oversaw the largest group of building projects in the college’s history. These included a library, the Neilson Campus (residence and dining halls), the New Gibbons complex, and three new classroom buildings. She created the college’s first honors program and the first program for students who were economically disadvantaged.
The college established committees to address the social landscape, which included the civil rights and women’s rights movements, as well as the Vietnam War. Students had more flexible graduation requirements and were no longer required to attend chapel. Also during this time, the college created formal policies for affirmative action.
With Dean Margery Somers Foster at the helm, Douglass College reacted to the turbulent '70s. The college abolished the honors system and the curfew. It established the Educational Opportunity Fund program and launched a pub in the College Center.
During this time, Douglass streamlined admissions, registration and financial aid. It also established the Women’s Studies Program for Rutgers University -- among the first and best in the nation.
The dean and the entire Douglass community resisted substantial pressure to admit men. The college retained its historic mission of providing an education for women. In response to co-education in the other New Brunswick colleges, Dean Jewel Plummer Cobb created the Douglass Scholars Program and new recruitment initiatives.
In 1981, Rutgers established the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick. This effectively ended the distinct Douglass College faculty. During this period, Rutgers started the School of Business in New Brunswick. For the first time, Douglass students could receive joint degrees with many Rutgers professional schools.
Dean Mary S. Hartman created the Douglass College Fellows and moved to restore strong liberal arts graduation requirements. The Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science and Engineering began, as did the Emerging Leaders Program. Douglass joined the National Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN) and became the home of the Blanche, Edith, and Irving Laurie New Jersey Chair in Women’s Studies.
Douglass College entered its 75th year with a very successful capital campaign. Dean Barbara A. Shailor recognized the increasing importance of technology. She also strengthened relations with corporate and foundation partners.
Under Shailor’s leadership, Douglass College wired residence halls for internet access and renovated two landmark buildings, College Hall and Voorhees Chapel. In this decade, Douglass also established the Institute for Women’s Leadership.
In student life, “freshmen” became “first-year students.” Douglass replaced volunteer house chairwomen with paid resident assistants. First-year students could live in the cutting-edge Bunting-Cobb Science and Math Residence Hall, pursue a certificate in international studies or undertake a Mabel Smith Douglass Honors thesis. Douglass also introduced “Shaping a Life,” a required course for first-year students.
Douglass began the new century with its ninth dean, Carmen Twillie Ambar. Dean Ambar oversaw a number of programs designed to prepare Douglass students for the world of globalization.
Among these programs was a teleconference course offered jointly with Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, Korea. The Global Village, a collection of special interest houses, also began during this time.
During this period, Rutgers made major changes to undergraduate education in New Brunswick. As a result, in 2007 first-year students entered a transformed Douglass. This new Douglass provided a women-centered educational experience.
Any woman undergraduate at Rutgers could be a Douglass student. Under the leadership of Interim Dean Harriet Davidson, the college began developing new programs for the women enrolling at Douglass.
In August 2010, Dr. Jacquelyn Litt became the tenth dean of Douglass and the first dean of Douglass Residential College. Under her leadership, Douglass has reshaped its educational experiences to engage its students, who are diverse and talented.
Peer mentoring, community service and student leadership have grown more important at Douglass. Dean Litt started a new Global Education Program and the Douglass Career Development Program. To support women in STEM fields, Douglass launched a new residential learning community for first-year women students in the School of Engineering.