The Tides of Change

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
After earning her Ph.D. in psychology, Rosemary “Posi” Pierrel Sorrentino taught at Brown for two years as an instructor, but left for Columbia and Barnard when President Henry Wriston refused to make her an assistant professor. “The way he saw it,” she once recalled, “there was no future for women on this faculty.” Despite Wriston’s sentiment, Sorrentino went on to become the last dean of Pembroke College and one of the first female professors at Brown. She died on November 11 in Providence. She was eighty-one.

Fortunately for Sorrentino, President Barnaby Keeney differed from Wriston on the role of women at Brown. Keeney lured her back to College Hill as Pembroke dean in 1961 with the promise that she could influence curriculum and academic life while continuing her research. During her decade as dean, Sorrentino emphasized academics and encouraged women to pursue careers as scholars. Under her tenure the number of women concentrating in the sciences increased. As an associate professor, she taught a senior seminar in psychology.

But times were changing rapidly, and Sorrentino’s enforcement of what a growing number of women saw as antiquated rules sometimes angered students. According to an essay by Louise M. Newman published in The Search for Equity: Women at Brown University, 1891–1991, Sorrentino’s 1966 suspension of a Pembroker for staying overnight in a man’s apartment incited student protests. Although Sorrentino understood the need for change, she feared that, as she wrote in 1961, “these tides should be carefully examined lest the individuality of Pembroke College gradually leak away.”

Sorrentino believed that the merger of Pembroke and Brown would hurt women’s education. But the point became moot when, in November 1970, a committee recommended that the administrative functions of the two colleges be joined. Sorrentino announced her resignation as dean a month later, citing her long-standing desire to return to full-time teaching and research. Following a Corporation vote on June 4, 1971, Pembroke ceased to exist as an administrative institution.

Sorrentino was named a full professor that same year. Her research focused on the auditory behavior of chinchillas. In 1981 she took on the prestigious role of mace bearer at Commencement. She became a professor emerita of psychology in 1987 and received an honorary doctorate in 1991. Over the three previous decades, Sorrentino had witnessed a sweeping change in the status of Brown women. In 1961 the committee charged with recruiting a new Pembroke dean had noted that she did not need to be an eminent scholar but that she must possess such traits as charm and femininity. In 1988 Sorrentino recalled for an interviewer a 1961 tea to which she’d been invited by a group of alumnae Corporation members looking her over for the job. “I suppose they had some nonacademic qualifications in mind,” she said, “though no one ever mentioned them. Probably being able to use the ‘proper fork’ and possessing an appropriate hat and gloves were among them.”

Sorrentino, whose portrait hangs in Sayles Hall, is survived by her husband, Louis, a stepson, a stepdaughter, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

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January / February 2004