Emily James Smith
Twenty-nine-year-old Emily James Smith became the first dean of Barnard College in 1894 when it was still at its original location of 343 Madison Avenue. Her wise manner and strong determination aided her in setting the foundations for Barnard’s sound curriculum and its commitment to assembling a good academic staff.
Smith graduated from Bryn Mawr with its first class and went on to become one of the first women to study at Girton College of Cambridge, later becoming a distinguished scholar of Greek at the University of Chicago. Her mastery of the classics allowed her to become personally involved in the education of Barnard students, teaching Homer to first-years and Plato to sophomores. Through her interactions with students and her high involvement in the College’s everyday affairs, Smith successfully molded the school’s character, setting the pattern for its place in the larger university system.
Under Smith, the College moved to its current Morningside Heights location, with one block of land where Milbank, Fiske, and Brinckerhoff Halls were constructed. With this move, she fought for Barnard’s rights to offer classes that Columbia did not and in 1898, Smith was able to secure Barnard alumnae representation on the Board of Trustees at Columbia. Two years later, Smith, who got on famously with Columbia president Seth Low, renegotiated Barnard’s terms with Columbia, whereby Barnard was given representation on the University Council, Barnard faculty appointments were made by the University, which continued to grant all degrees, Barnard students were allowed to take some Columbia graduate courses, and Barnard could expand in any direction it saw fit. This agreement made Barnard the only women’s college in the country at the time that could act independently while allowing its students open access to one of the nation’s leading universities. Barnard was responsible for its own finances, and the College, like a modern woman, paid its own way.
Smith’s marriage to famed publisher George Haven Putnam proved that a woman was capable of successfully combining a happy marriage with a successful career and helped make her a role model to her students. Smith’s term as dean ended on February 1, 1900, when she resigned due to her pregnancy. She returned to the College as a part-time lecturer from 1914–30 and remained a presence in Barnard’s development.