Ninetta M. Runnals
Ninetta May Runnals was born on January 14, 1885, in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, where her father was a machinist in a local mill. She came to Colby with the class of 1908, and studied mathematics. After Colby, she taught math and languages at Foxcroft Academy, then took a position as Dean of Girls at Maine Central Institute from 1911 through 1916.
When Colby created the position of Dean of Women, President Roberts sent Runnals a proposal stating: “I am writing to inquire if you would be at all interested in the deanship of women here for the coming year and the rest of your life.” She refused at first, taking the time to finish a Master’s Degree at Columbia University, then decided only to accept if she was offered a full faculty membership and a greater freedom than the dean’s position originally entailed. Roberts agreed, and in 1920, she began as Dean of Women and Assistant Professor of Mathematics (becoming a full professor in 1923).
Immediately upon her arrival Runnals began to address some of the major obstacles facing women at Colby. At the time, the Trustees were seriously considering splitting Colby into a men’s and women’s school. She vehemently fought against this, as had Mary Low several decades earlier. Runnals knew that coordinate colleges would mean depleted, inferior resources for women; at the time, most New England colleges still weren’t coeducational and she could easily see what would become of Colby if the Trustees had their way.
Victorious in this struggle, Runnals moved on to address other issues at Colby. Within one year of her arrival at Colby, Runnals had completely eliminated the old system of health and physical education for women, which primarily consisted of a part-time, low paid supervisor for gymnastic activities. In its place, Runnals instituted a full-time nurse, equipped a woman’s infirmary, and organized the Women’s Health League, all of which were in place for the fall of 1921.
Though she left Colby in 1926 to work as Dean of Women and Associate Professor of Education at Hillsdale College in Michigan, she returned in 1928 to Colby, resuming her post as Dean of Women and adding Education to Mathematics as her academic fields. Colby honored Runnals with a Doctor of Letters degree in 1929, and she would remain as Dean of Women until her retirement in 1949.
Prior to World War II, she led the fund-raising efforts for the Women’s Union on the new Mayflower Hill campus, helping to gather the necessary $100,000 entirely from alumni. In 1959, the building was renamed in her honor.
Also, Runnals, who had been frustrated with the fact that when she was a student, Colby women were not admitted into the American Association of University Women (AAUW), founded the Waterville branch of the AAUW.
Runnals remained active in Colby life, particularly issues of gender equity, until her death in 1980 at age 95. On March 21, 1992, she was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame.
Samantha Eddy ’13 has recently completed research on Ninetta Runnals in Colby Special Collections, Miller Library. Read more about her project here.