Rhoda Dorsey, the first female president of Goucher College, the longest-serving executive at the formerly all-women's school and its leader when it made the wrenching decision to enroll male students, died in her Cockeysville apartment Saturday, the school said. She was 86.
"This is a sad moment for all of us," Sanford J. Ungar, Goucher's president, said in an email to faculty and staff. He expanded on the thought Sunday.
"I have no doubt that she saved the college with the decision to go coed," Ungar said. "Many people would have liked Goucher to remain a woman's college — especially the all-female alumnae body. But it wasn't going to work."
Dr. Dorsey was named acting president of the liberal arts college in Towson in 1973, and appointed to the position the following year. It was a time when other women's colleges in the United States were beginning to admit men, shrinking the market for women's colleges.
Dr. Dorsey initially resisted calls to turn Goucher coeducational. By the time she was appointed president, she had spent two decades at the college as a professor of history and a dean, and her sympathies lay with those students who wore a T-shirt then popular on campus: "Better Dead Than Coed."
But under financial pressure, she eventually concluded the move was necessary. Wolfgang Thormann, chairman of Goucher's modern languages department from 1960 to 1988, described the decision as particularly difficult for her.
"She was, after all, devoted to Goucher at a time when young women could not integrate any old college, and had to have their own colleges," Dr. Thormann said. "But she realized that times had changed, and if you wanted to pursue the excellence of the women's colleges you had to change with the times. She knew, even though it hurt some of the former students, present students and some faculty, there was just no other way to preserve Goucher."
The college's trustees voted in 1986 to begin enrolling men. When Dr. Dorsey retired eight years later, she expressed confidence in Goucher's future.
"The college is on firm financial footing," she told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. "The enrollment is increasing. The quality of the student body is improving. That makes the faculty happier.
"Now I think the college is just poised for another great period of blossoming."
Born in Dorchester, Mass., Dr. Dorsey graduated magna cum laude from Smith College in 1949 and earned a second bachelor's degree and a master's degree as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University. She completed her doctorate at the University of Minnesota in 1956.
Dr. Dorsey joined the Goucher faculty as an assistant professor of history in 1954 and became academic dean in 1968.
"She was a teacher who stood for academic rigor above all," said Ungar, whose presidential office is in the Rhoda M. Dorsey College Center on campus. "She had very high standards, and believed in the kind of broad liberal arts training that we've given students throughout Goucher's history."
Dr. Dorsey served 21 years as president. After her retirement in 1994, she remained a regular presence on campus, visiting regularly, advising her successors and supporting the school's continued growth.
"She was extremely successful at being a predecessor," Ungar said. "She never sought to interfere, but she paid close attention to what was going on. She sent notes from time to time, always encouraging."
Nancy Magnuson, Goucher's college librarian, said Dr. Dorsey volunteered to help improve the college's archives by identifying documents and naming people in old photographs.
"She served the college well through some very difficult times," Ms. Magnuson said. "She really was a remarkable person, extremely strong and intelligent and steady, but also extremely thoughtful and kind."
Chrystelle T. Bond, a professor of dance at Goucher, saw Dr. Dorsey in late April in what she believes was the former president's last visit to campus. The occasion was a ceremony that marked Ms. Bond's 50th anniversary at Goucher.
"Rhoda Dorsey was supportive of all of the arts," Ms. Bond said. "She was a wonderful scholar, a wonderful teacher, but also a wonderful friend."
Ms. Bond, who founded the college's dance department, recalled times when Dr. Dorsey invited her into her classroom to speak to her students about the history of dance. Dr. Dorsey also lent her support as the dance department was established as an academic discipline, Ms. Bond said.
As president, Dr. Dorsey arranged a meeting in 1984 between Ms. Bond and an alumna, Elizabeth Conolly Todd, for Ms. Bond to seek funding for a new dance studio. Hearing that Mrs. Todd was a dog lover, Dr. Dorsey encouraged Ms. Bond to bring her black toy poodle, Jacques-Pierre, along for the meeting at Mrs. Todd's home.
The meeting was a success: Mrs. Todd agreed to give Goucher $250,000 for the new studio.
Ms. Bond said Dr. Dorsey was known for gestures such as remembering an alumna's affection for poodles.
"That's the kind of person she was: highly academic, high standards, and yet she was warm and personal and down to earth," Ms. Bond said. "A neo-Renaissance person."
Mike Bowler, a former longtime education reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sun, said Dr. Dorsey's leadership guided Goucher through a rocky time.
"There were a lot of alumni that were aghast that they would let men in," Mr. Bowler said. "It was something they had to do; otherwise, they may not have survived.
"It was clear that they were stressed, and going co-ed may have saved the college."
Mr. Bowler said Dr. Dorsey had thrown a party at her apartment on May 4, less than a week before her death. He said she was known for throwing marvelous parties with invitations sometimes under the names of her cats. Her last cat was named Angel.
"Rhoda had a wonderful sense of humor; she was very droll," Mr. Bowler said.
About a dozen people were gathered at that last party, Bowler said, and it became clear by the end of the night that Dr. Dorsey wasn't feeling well.
"It turned out to be a farewell party," he said.
Details of services were not available Sunday. Goucher said it would hold an "observance of her life and work" in "the near future."
Dr. Dorsey is survived by a sister, Frances Dorsey Cobb, of Hartford, Conn.