A conversation with history

Back in 1956 when RIC was still called RICE, tuition was $25 and students were predominantly Irish Catholic women all studying to be teachers, Dorothy Pieniadz was hired as the first dean of students. It was a time when gender, race and other diversity issues were being questioned.

On October 6, 2011, as part of RIC’s Diversity Week, Pieniadz spoke at a Q & A, following a performance of dramatic readings taken from “Rhode Island College: On the Move, A Fiftieth Anniversary Collective Memoir 1952–1960.”

Following the reading, the former dean took a seat beside host Kathryn Sasso ’69, assistant director of RIC’s Career Development Center, who posed questions about diversity at the college in the 50s.

Dorothy Pieniadz

William Gaige
“In 1956 when I was hired, 99 out of 100 deans of students were male," said Pieniadz.

“I remember during my interview, President Bill Gaige said to me, ‘I wonder what the faculty would think of me hiring a woman.’

“And I said, ‘Are you hiring a gender or a person to fulfill a certain role? There will be times when we won’t agree, but not because I’m a woman and you’re a man.’”

Only 32 years old, what the new dean lacked in age, she made up for in outspokenness. Now 87, she remains a spirited personality – intelligent, fearless, independent, unconventional.

She said, Gaige prided himself on the growth of diversity at the college. “When URI was criticized for being too Protestant and RIC for being too Catholic, Gaige hired the first Mormon,” she said. He also hired the first faculty member of color – Bob Amos, a black professor of psychology.

Bob Amos
“Amos came in 1956, the same year I was hired,” she said, “but he couldn’t find a room near the college where he would be welcome as a tenant.”

And when Pieniadz rented an apartment near the college, she informed the landlord of her independent lifestyle. She said, “Before you give me your final say so, I want you to know that I will have people of all kinds and colors coming in.”

Amos was the first friend she made at the college, and he, along with other RICE faculty, would gather at her apartment.

The lack of racial diversity was also apparent in the student body. Until 1959, the college had graduated less than 10 students of color.

“The college justified not admitting these students because they couldn’t find employment for them upon graduation,” Pieniadz said. “It was true that black students had to go to the South in order to teach. It was the only place they could get a job. Charity Bailey, a black student, started The Little Red School House in New York and later received an honorary master’s degree from the college.”

Dorothy Pieniadz (left), Kathryn Sasso (right).

Pieniadz also tackled issues involving disabled students. She had a lengthy conference with the principal of Henry Barnard School and a committee as to whether or not a student bound to a wheelchair should have her practicum at Barnard.

“They didn’t feel that Barnard was equipped to handle a disabled student. I pointed out that not only has this student demonstrated that she can manage herself, she’s demonstrated that she can manage a classroom.”

Pieniadz asked whether the real issue was that Barnard schoolchildren had never seen a teacher in a wheelchair. It could be the best thing for these kids, she said, to see a disabled person in front of the classroom.

RIC students give dramatic readings of RIC oral history.

Kathryn Sasso
Not averse to aiding student uprisings either, Pieniadz took part in a student-led effort to get rid of compulsory chapel by advising the students to continue to attend chapel but to sit with their heads down in an act of noncompliance.

Then she went to Gaige to tell him what she had done.

“I figured when he got wind of it I’d be fired, so I let him hear it from me,” she said. “He was angry, but he was smart enough to know that compulsory chapel wasn’t the answer. Change was needed.”

Sasso asked how she came to have such an open attitude. Pieniadz went back to her upbringing. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a neighborhood she described as “middle working class, mixed with fairly comfortable.”

“Every Friday evening, I had Shabbat with my Jewish neighbors,” she said, “and they, in turn, would lift their windows to smell what my Polish mother was baking. In the house behind us, I babysat the Meindl boys who were German. The neighbors to our right had roots in England and Scotland. When I received a fellowship to travel to Europe following my doctoral studies, I lived with their uncle.”

She also credited her educators at Columbia University’s Teachers College for opening her mind to issues she had never considered before. Traveling to other countries also informed and transformed her thinking.

“I wish everyone a chance to leave this country and to be exposed to other people. You gain a better perspective of this country, and you’ll never again want to close yourself off.”

From 1959 to 1962, Pieniadz led The Experiment in International Living with programs in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia. She also initiated RIC’s first study abroad program in 1974 to Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, in coordination with the Kosciuszko Foundation study programs. She remained director of study abroad for 10 years. Still an avid traveler, Pieniadz speaks German, Russian, Polish and some French.

A student in the audience asked the former dean if she thought the college had advanced in racial diversity. Pieniadz took a global perspective: “Institutions don’t exist in isolation; they reflect the thinking of the country. We’ve made progress, but not like we should. The color issue remains a challenge.”

Another student asked what barriers should students be breaking down today.

“Today’s students owe it to themselves to be as informed as possible,” she answered. “Four years of college is hardly the equivalent of a high school diploma. It’s just the beginning of your growth.” She warned against relying on the easy acquisition of information. She said students need to know how to gain information beyond what they can retrieve quickly from the Internet. Every day she reads the ”New York Times” and the ”Providence Journal.”

The Oral History Committee, co-chaired by Sasso and P. William Hutchinson, professor emeritus of theatre, spent several years interviewing Pieniadz and other faculty, staff and students for “Rhode Island College: On the Move, A Fiftieth Anniversary Collective Memoir 1952–1960.” The book, edited by Marlene Lopes, is available for $10 at Adams Library in Special Collections, or click http://digitalcommons.ric.edu/on_the_move/1/.

This Diversity Week event was sponsored by the Office of the President, Adams Library, the Career Development Center, the History Department, the Office of Student Activities and the Unity Center.

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