Arthur Howe Jr., the Yale admissions dean who in 1956 sparked what he called the “heretical” idea of permitting women into the Ivy League college’s undergraduate program — 13 years before it came to fruition — died Dec. 16 at his home in Essex, Conn. He was 93.
The cause was a bone-marrow disease, said a son, Tom Howe.
After leaving Yale in 1964, Mr. Howe spent eight years as president of the American Field Service. The organization began during World War I as a force of volunteer ambulance drivers in combat zones and later morphed into a student-exchange program with the goal of fostering world harmony.
Mr. Howe came from a family of prominent educators. His late brother Harold Howe II served as U.S. commissioner of education from 1966 to 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Their maternal grandfather, Samuel Chapman Armstrong, founded what is now Hampton University in Virginia as a trade school for freed slaves and American Indians. Arthur Howe Jr. grew up partly at Hampton, where his father was president in the 1930s. (The historically black university, then known as the Hampton Institute, did not have a black president until 1949.)
Mr. Howe graduated from Yale in 1947 and joined the faculty in 1951. Five years later, he was named dean of admissions and student appointments. His portfolio included financial aid and vocational counseling. He started a Yale summer-school program for academically promising high school students from poor backgrounds.
Mr. Howe was regarded as a transitional figure in Yale admissions. Under Yale President A. Whitney Griswold in the 1950s and early 1960s, the college was strikingly exclusionary in its rejection of high-achieving Jews and blacks, even by the standards of the day, and accorded strong advantages to graduates of elite boarding schools who were thought to be “well-rounded” and to show “personal promise,” sociologist Jerome Karabel wrote in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”
Because of a surge of Yale applications by the early 1960s, Mr. Howe helped change the legacy admissions policy to give extra weight to the importance of the alumnus. This was how George W. Bush — an academically unexceptional private-school graduate but the grandson of a U.S. senator from Connecticut and son of a budding politician and Yale alumnus — was granted a spot in the 1964 freshman class, Karabel wrote in a 2004 New York Times opinion piece.
“If high academic ability were the only criterion, we would have to eliminate quite a few future presidents of the country,” Mr. Howe said in an unusually prescient comment to the New Yorker in 1960.
Amid such conservative tendencies, Mr. Howe surprised many — Griswold above all — with his pronouncements about the value of coeducation at Yale. Yale began admitting women to its graduate programs in 1869, but its undergraduate program remained a male preserve.
As a new admissions dean, Mr. Howe said at a faculty gathering, “The all-male school is outmoded.” That remark made the Times — as did Griswold’s reply that including women had “not the remotest possibility” of happening.
Mr. Howe remained outspoken on admitting women. The very idea, he acknowledged in 1964, was still “heretical” to some, but he maintained that the college could not “go on endlessly excluding one-half of the population.”
Despite his boldness on coeducation, Mr. Howe continued to be associated with the insular, old-guard policies of the Griswold years. After Griswold’s death in 1963, Mr. Howe seemed out of sync with the more liberal admissions strategy under the new president, Kingman Brewster Jr., who wanted fewer mediocre legacy students and more public-school graduates with superior academic records.
The first female undergraduates appeared on campus in 1969, five years after Mr. Howe left for the presidency of the American Field Service.
A Yale alumni magazine article in 1999 described Mr. Howe as a “reformer more than a modernizer” and noted that Brewster “accelerated” Mr. Howe’s efforts to diversify the student body.
“It’s always been my style to try and change, but to change in ways that I believe are constructive, not just disruptive,” Mr. Howe told the magazine.
Arthur Howe Jr. was born in Watertown, Conn., on July 19, 1921, and was a 1938 graduate of the private Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. He left his studies at Yale in late 1941 to enlist in the American Field Service.
During World War II, he became an ambulance driver attached to the British army, predominately in North Africa. He rose to the rank of major and commanded a company of about 120 ambulances and 200 men before bouts with dysentery forced his return to the United States.
He completed his Yale degree after the war and continued his involvement with the American Field Service as a volunteer.
As the group’s New York-based president from 1964 to 1972, Mr. Howe succeeded the revered but autocratic Stephen Galatti, who had been with the field service since its founding. Mr. Howe was credited with restructuring the organization to make it less rigidly centralized. He promoted women, foreigners and volunteers to positions of greater responsibility.
Mr. Howe sat on many corporate and academic boards. For many years, he chaired Hampton University’s board.
Survivors include his wife of 70 years, Margaret “Peggy” Burke Howe of Essex; four children, Margie Emmons of Yarmouth, Maine, Sam Howe of Andover, Mass., Arthur Howe III of Ipswich, Mass., and Tom Howe of Gilmanton, N.H.; a brother; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A daughter, Louise, died in 1954 as a toddler.