Neklason and Murree Research Effects of Merger With Abbot Academy

Rachel Murree ’14 and Annika Neklason ’13 discussed the effects, both historic and current, of the Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy merger on women in their joint Brace Fellow Presentation on Monday, titled “The End of Abbot: How the 1973 Merger with Phillips Academy Began a Takeover.”

Presenting their research to an audience of students, faculty and Abbot alumnae, Murree and Neklason examined the impact the merger had on the female students at the time as well as its influence on life at Andover for a young woman today.

Their research led them to the conclusion that almost 40 years after the merger, a sentiment of disempowerment still remains prevalent on campus.

The joining of the schools in 1973 led to a period of liberalization for the Academy, which had previously emphasized classical education and rote memorization, said Neklason during their presentation.

Abbot brought out a liberal arts side of Phillips Academy, according to Murree and Neklason. One Abbot student, in a 1972 questionnaire on a new coordinate education program between the two schools, wrote, “Phillips stresses factual teaching, memorizing facts, figures, dates. [Abbot] stresses conceptual teaching. [Abbot’s] conceptual approach to teaching is desirable and should be adopted, if PA coordination is to work out.”

Although the merger diversified Andover, the Abbot girls often suffered socially from the union, said Neklason and Murree.

A 1974 merger study commissioned by the Abbot Academy Association found that girls were almost wholly less satisfied than they had been at Abbot with student-teacher and student-administrator relationships, counseling, sex and drug education, student government and even their opportunities to meet and interact with members of the opposite sex, said Murree.

“Abbot’s name was removed from the school’s masthead, its campus was largely vacated,” said Murree. “Its authority was all but entirely ceded to the former Phillips Academy trustees. The atmosphere that existed at the combined school… was one that made female students feel estranged… unsupported, and as if they were under constant pressure and scrutiny.”

“That resulted in males taking positions of power… and that left girls feeling that in the merger they lost not only their status as Abbot students, but also their place in a community,” she continued.

Murree and Neklason said that this issue still remains on campus today.

“I think gender barriers exist because of our mindsets. There’s this expectation that girls at this school [on campus] aren’t going to achieve as much as their male counterparts, and I think a lot of that is based on history but also on our ingrained ideas about this school and our roles here,” wrote Neklason in an e-mail to The Phillipian.

“I worry that women at PA never truly regained their identity, their strength or any sort of equality: that in the 40 years since the merger, feminism is still viewed as a dirty word on this campus,” wrote Jackie Murray ’13, who attended the presentation, in an e-mail to The Phillipian.

Women’s education had long been a subject for debate at Andover, even before the founding of Abbot Academy. Murree said that in 1872 the Philomathean Society held a debate which resolved that “females possessed minds as capable of improvement as males.” Similar discussions led members of the Phillips Academy’s Board of Trustees to help found Abbot, according to Murree.

“Abbot was close to Phillips not only because it was founded by people from the Academy, but also because of physical proximity, and this closeness did not go unnoticed,” said Murree.

As early as 1949, Marguerite Hearsey, Principal of Abbot Academy at the time, jokingly mentioned the idea of a “co-educational utopia” to John Kemper, Phillips Academy Headmaster from 1948 to 1971, said Murree.

In 1957, Abbot faculty began to talk seriously about coordinate education, as Abbot faced financial instability and low application rates. Coordinate education, unlike coeducation, did not require the schools to merge. Rather, students from Abbot would attend some classes at Andover, and vice versa.

Working with members of the Andover community, Donald Gordon, Principal of Abbot in 1968, achieved coordinate education in 1971.

The success of the coordinate education program convinced the Andover trustees and Theodore Sizer, Headmaster of Andover in 1972, to agree to a merger. Gordon and Sizer signed the final terms of the merger in February of 1973, said Neklason.

Debby Murphy, Director of Alumni Affairs, wrote, “I do believe there are Abbot women who feel their school is ‘gone’ and were not pleased that the two schools merged. I also believe, however, that there have been Abbot women who have reconnected with the school and learned that parts of Abbot… are very much alive and well at PA today.” Murphy, who attended the presentation, added that many Andover organizations today, such as the dance program, Fidelio Society and “The Courant” originated in Abbot.

Tom Hodgson, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, served as Murree and Neklason’s advisor for their project.

The two now plan to preserve the remaining culture and history of Abbot by working with Paige Roberts, Phillips Academy Archivist, to catalogue the Abbot section of the archives. They also work as proctors at the Brace Center for Gender Studies and serve on the “Coeducation@40” Committee, a group planning celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the merger next year, said Neklason.

“For the alumnae of Abbot, [Rachel and Annika] honored and validated the experience of the girls’ school that is no more. For the current students and faculty, they reminded us of the power and impact of history,” wrote Becky Sykes, Assistant Head of School, in an e-mail to The Phillipian.