12. Going Global

  1. Going Global

Your engagement with outside power brokers must continue and expand so
that Barnard will be better known and appreciated in the world.
— Anna Quindlen to Debora L. Spar, 2009 [1.]

The research and much of the writing of this history of Barnard College occurred during the presidency of Debora L. Spar (2008-2017). The original plan  was to conclude with the Shapiro presidency and merely note the selection of her successor.  Spar’s surprise resignation in November 2016, taking effect in February 2017, prompts the inclusion here of a brief summary of her nearly 9-year presidency. I do so recognizing the risks of extending  an historical account into the very near present where a documentary record has yet to be collected or made available,  where various decisions have yet to stand the test of time,  and where subjectivity is an occupational certainty. [2]



  1. Going Global

In many  ways, Barnard’s seventh president-elect  replicated her two predecessors. Like Futter and Shapiro, Debora L. Spar came from the New York region, in her case the Westchester suburban town of Chappaqua. And like them, she is Jewish. Just short of 45 when chosen, she took up the presidency younger than Shapiro (51) and older than Futter  (31). Her father was a dentist, her mother a homemaker, both college graduates. Debora attended public schools in Chappaqua. While in graduate school at Harvard she met and married  Miltos Catomeris,  a Greek-born architect with a practice in Boston. They have three children. [3]

More significant  for members  of the presidential search committee that selected her, and observers since, were the differences with earlier presidents. First was the absence of any prior experience with women’s colleges.  Weed, Smith, Gill, Gildersleeve, McIntosh, Park, Mattfeld  and  Futter were all graduates of women’s colleges, while  Shapiro had been employed at one for 18 years.  Only Peterson (and now Sian Leah Beilock) among Barnard’s administrative leaders had no extended prior exposure to women’s colleges.

Spar also was unusual in that  most of her higher education and subsequent occupational experience occurred in a professional environment. Her undergraduate degree was from the Foreign Service School of Georgetown University, where she prepared for a career in diplomacy, and, following PhD training in political science at Harvard,  her teaching career of 18 years took place at the Harvard Business School.   No previous Barnard president had as little prior institutional exposure to the liberal arts. [4]

So what did the search committee see in Spar’s  vita that  prompted her apparently unanimous and enthusiastic selection?  The confidential nature of such deliberations make any speculation just that. But the committee had little reason, Barnard’s vital signs positive,  to be looking for a crisis manager of the Peterson or  Futter  type. Nor did the faculty members, given their well-provided-for feelings under Shapiro,  have a strong claim for back-to-back “professor’s presidents.”  More likely, because Barnard was already the most selective of  all women’s colleges and comfortable in its dealings with Columbia, trustee and student members  saw Barnard  looking to more worldly challenges  — and a new kind of president to take them on. Such ambitions are consistent with a rare  breach of the committee’s  cone of silence  when the committee chair later cited the comment of two student members after  “another  smart, articulate academic left the room”: “She was great. But she wasn’t Debora Spar.” [5]

Spar was at her appointment the most prolific of Barnard’s presidents. Her four books — Beyond Globalism:  The Remaking of American Foreign Economic Policy (with Raymond Vernon) (1989); Ruling the Waves: From the Compass to the Internet (2001); Pirates, Prophets and Pioneers: Business and Politics Along the Technological Frontier (2001); The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (2005) – and a score of articles  placed her among the most published of all but a handful of contemporary  college or university presidents.  Moreover, unlike Rosemary Park and  Judith Shapiro, whose publications were directed  at fellow academic specialists, Spar wrote for a global audience of policymakers, both public and corporate. All this seems to have been important to the search committee.

Likely more than any other qualification it was Spar’s promise as a communicator  that secured her the committee’s endorsement.  That is what the candidate later said she  took away from her interviews, a sense that the committee believed  Barnard was  “punching below its weight.” “What Barnard needed,”  Spar understood, “was someone to elevate it. When you are a place that has been as good as Barnard, you want to be known for that. And I think that was a big part of my job.” The charge from the trustees after her first year as president only reinforced this impression:  “Your engagement with outside power brokers must continue and expand so that Barnard will be better known and appreciated in the world.”  [6]

  1. Blindsided
    Whatever else about the start of the Spar presidency, it lacked good  timing. Between January 30, 2008, when trustee chair  Anna Quindlen announced  the selection of Debora  L. Spar to be Barnard’s 7th president and 11th leader,  and her  installation five weeks later  in March, the United States slid  into the  most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.  Problems with the home-mortgage market,  first  publicly acknowledged in the fall of 2007, had spread the following spring to major banks and other financial institutions holding suddenly toxic mortgage-backed securities, putting them at risk of runs by depositors/creditors  and ensuing bankruptcy. On September 15, four weeks prior to Spar’s inauguration, one of New York City’s oldest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, declared bankruptcy after the Bush administration declined to bail it out; on September 29 the stock market experienced its sharpest single-day drop of 770 points.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average,  at 14,000 during the early meetings of the search committee in October 2007, had fallen to 9,000 five months later, bottoming out at 6400 in April 2009. The stock market – and investors in it – had lost 54% of its earlier value. [7]

Meanwhile, Barnard’s endowment,  $212,000,000 at President Shapiro’s departure in the spring of 2008, had a year later dropped to $164,000,000, a loss of 22% in market value. The only  positive note struck at the time by COO Greg Brown was that, because Barnard’s endowment was so much smaller than its peers, its operating budget less dependent on endowment draws, and  its investment strategy  more risk-averse,  the College lost relatively less than others.. [8]

The  national financial crisis that greeted Barnard’s new president  limited her immediate options but  did not keep her from thinking big. Spar’s inaugural address on October 28, 2008, was nothing if not ambitious. It contained three major proposals, each drawing on initiatives of predecessors, that were to become  hallmarks of her administration. The first was to make Barnard a significant player on the global scene, both as a voice for women the world over and as an educator of the world’s women. Gildersleeve had earlier staked out an international role for Barnard with her travels and diplomatic labors,  and more recently Shapiro had effected a modern-day “opening” to China by her 1999 visit. But Spar now proposed a series of annual global forums that over the next eight years  had her engaging  the elites of London ,  Beijing, Dubai, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Shanghai. [9]

Her second proposal, building on Shapiro’s Student Leadership Initiative, had Barnard taking  a larger public role  in the training of women for leadership roles in business and politics. This effort was to be lodged in the newly created  Athena Center for Leadership Studies, a co-curricular undertaking that would involve faculty, administrative personnel and  outside advisers from the worlds of commerce and politics,  all under the direction of Kathryn Kolbert, a prominent civil rights attorney and  feminist. The Athena Center went on to host an annual Women’s Film Festival and a series of Power Talks delivered by  women and open to the public, as well as courses for Barnard students on leadership, developed by the historian Rosalind Rosenberg, entrepreneurship and coding. [10]

The intended beneficiary of  the incoming president’s  third inaugural  proposal was the Barnard faculty. Spar used the occasion both to applaud their scholarly productivity and to announce the establishment of a  Presidential Faculty Research Fund, which would annually dispense  $100,000 to support promising faculty research projects that had yet to  secure external support.  Here, too, previous administrations  back to President Mattfeld had recognized the need for more internal support for Barnard’s faculty in their roles as scholars, while those of Futter and Shapiro  had increased the ways and amounts of that support. But Spar, coming from institutional academic circumstances  where research and publications were the coin of the realm, promised  to take such support to a  still higher level. When  shortly thereafter  she announced her intention to reduce the standard teaching program of Barnard faculty from five courses to four – a move made earlier by the much wealthier Amherst and Wellesley  but resisted at Barnard by her two predecessors for financial reasons – her embrace of the scholar-teacher model was complete.   [11]

Financial exigencies, not least the drop in endowment income going into the annual budgets of 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12, slowed  but did not prevent  implementation of these proposals. The global forums commenced in 2009 with a presidential trip to London, the Athena Center was up and running, and a reduction in teaching programs went into effect  in the fall of 2011. This last won the president and provost almost universal praise from faculty  and surprisingly little critical comment from students and parents. A few faculty  wondered how their windfall would not result in fewer courses being taught by regular faculty, and more adjunct faculty being  hired to teach them, but mostly kept these possibilities to themselves.  In the event,  both happened. [12]

Several administrative changes occurred early on in the Spar presidency.   Gregory  Brown, one of Judith Shapiro’s last senior administrative hires as vice president for finance in 2006, was elevated to Chief Operating Officer in May 2009. This had him overseeing  Finance, Human Resources, Campus Services, Barnard College Information Technology, and the General Counsel. He also led the financing and opening of the Diana Center, instituted improvements to Barnard’s computing and administrative systems, and redesigned the  performance evaluation process for administrators. He later chaired the 2012 academic-space planning process and  the campus-wide steering committee charged with the creation of the new academic building to replace Lehman Hall and Wollman Library. He remained on campus during the president’s annual trips abroad. Brown left Barnard in early 2014 to become vice president for finance at Swarthmore College. Robert Goldberg, previously with the State Department,  succeeded him as Chief Operating Officer, his appointment commencing in August 2014. [13]

Shapiro’s 1995 appointee as provost and dean of the faculty, Elizabeth Boylan, stayed on until July 2011, during which she increased the College’s  science offerings, further diversified the racial composition of the faculty, and  implemented the four-course teaching program. She left to join the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as director for STEM education. Paul E. Hertz, professor of biology and director of the Howard Hughes Pipeline Project at Barnard, became acting provost for 15 months, until Linda A.  Bell, an economist and provost at Haverford,  arrived as provost and dean of the faculty in October 2012. [14]

In February 2011, longtime Dean of the College Dorothy Denburg, BC ’70, was named vice president for College Relations and charged with strengthening alumnae ties to the College. Avis E. Hinkson, BC ’84, a student-affairs administrator at the University of California, Berkeley, and before that Pomona College, became Dean of the College. Her appointment, along with that of Vivian Taylor in 2009 as the president’s chief of staff, placed two African American women in senior administrative positions.  Denburg retired in 2013, after a distinguished career at Barnard that extended over 43 years.  Taylor left in 2011 and Hinkson, after serving five years as Dean of the College, returned to Pomona in 2018. [15]

One administrative area that retained its earlier leadership was Admissions, where Jennifer Fondiller, BC ’88, who became Director in 2002, stayed on through the Spar presidency and into that of Sian Beilock. For all but two of her 16 years as director, Barnard applications increased annually as did selectivity.
Year                                 Applications                               Admit             Admit Rate



4,599 1,173 26%
2007 4,574 1,315 29%
2008 4,273 1,217 29%
2009 4,174 1,295 31%
2010 4,618 1,285 28%
2011 5,153 1,286 25%
2012 5,440 1,228 23%
2013 5,606 1,192 21%
2014 5,676 1,328 23%
2015 6,655 1,306 20%
2016 7,071 1,179 16%



  1. Mid-Term Initiatives

By the spring of 2011, with the endowment back up to 2008 levels ($215,500,000 in June 2011) and financial-aid expenditures, which had sharply increased after 2008, leveling off, the improved financial outlook allowed Spar and her senior administration to take up new challenges. Chief among them was the planning and launch of the quiet phase of the  $400 million Bold Standard Capital Campaign, the centerpiece of which was to be the construction of a $150 million  teaching and learning center on the site of the to-be-demolished Lehman Hall/Wollman Library. Other components of the campaign  included $175 million for endowment, $100 million of which was hallmarked for financial aid,  and $75 million for endowed professorships. In charge of this effort was Bret Silver, previously a fund raiser at the Lincoln Center, who came to Barnard as vice president for development in February 2011. Five years later, at the start of the public campaign,  Barnard announced gifts totaling $70 million from the families of three trustees – Cheryl Milstein, BC ’82, P. ‘14; Leonard Tow  and daughter Claire Tow Jackson BC ‘88; Diana Vagelos, BC ’55 – in support of the under-construction teaching and learning center, which was to be named the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Teaching and Learning Center. It opened in the fall of 2018. [17]

Also getting underway in 2011 was a 3-year review of the curriculum led by Professor of Astronomy Laura Kay. Building on the “Nine Ways of Knowing”  curriculum installed in the Shapiro presidency  in 1999 and maintaining the First-Year Seminars that dated back to the mid-1980s, the “Foundations” curriculum approved by the faculty in 2015 broke new ground by  adding  technology, global inquiry and social difference  components to the general requirements, as well as encouraging more academic attention to New York City. [18]

A third accomplishment of the Spar administration, not part of its initial agenda, was devising a policy with regard to enrolling and retaining transgender students. The issue had  been first broached  during the Shapiro administration and managed on a case-by-case basis, but with no definitive policy pronouncement. In 2013, with Barnard hosting the Sister College presidents, Spar asked recently appointed Barnard Writer in Residence and advocate for transgender rights Jennifer Boylan to address the subject at dinner. A year later, after the other remaining Sister colleges had all promulgated policies that welcomed applicants from biological males who now identified as women, the Barnard board of trustees, specifically the Committee on Campus Life and its co-chairs, Diana Vagelos,  BC ’55 and Frances  Sadler, BC ’72, took up the issue. Five town hall  meetings  allowed  students, alumnae,  faculty and trustees to consider various options, along with an online solicitation of views from interested parties unable to attend these meetings.  On June 4, 2015, board chair Jolyne Caruso-Fitzgerald, BC ‘81, after much discussion and little dissent, announced the new policy:
Barnard would welcome the applications of and would admit otherwise qualified
self-identified women whatever their gender designation at birth;
Barnard would continue to enroll  transitioning students (female to male) if  they
wished to remain at Barnard;
Barnard would  continue to use gendered language that reflects our identity
as a women’s college.

If historically not always in the vanguard of constructive social change, in this instance Barnard moved deliberately and consensually to achieve the right outcome. [19]

Two initiatives came along later. In December 2015, Barnard’s Board of Trustees authorized the formation of the Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment. Here, too, on year of discussions among students, faculty,  administrators and the Board ensued about how the College should respond to calls upon it to divest from companies in the fossil fuel industry that denied the existence of and  human contribution to climate change. The Barnard board was the first among its peers to approve a policy that directed its investment advisers to do so.  A related undertaking began in the fall of 2016 under the faculty leadership of professor of Environmental Science Stephanie Pfirman  and associate professor of Theatre Sandra Goldmark focused on consumption and waste, energy , the local environment, curricula and research, and campus culture. Here, too, if slower than some of its rural and crunchier institutional peers to take up the issue, by 2016 the thoroughly urban Barnard had embraced the cause of environmentalism.  [20]

  1. Who Should Scape Whipping?

    On November 16, 2016, The New York Times carried the story of Debora Spar’s departure from the Barnard presidency to become president of the Lincoln Center, effective March 2017.  Surprised by the announcement, the trustees moved quickly to appoint Robert Goldberg, the College’s chief operating officer, as acting president,  and to launch a search for a new president. Goldberg then served as acting president for five months, doing so with grace, self-deprecating humor and administrative skill, until Sian Leah Beilock arrived on campus in May as Barnard’s  8th president. [21]

When  Spar moved downtown in February,  she had served just under nine years as Barnard’s 7th  president and 11th administrative head. The many accomplishments of her tenure – weathering the financial crisis; securing funding for a major capital project; curricular updating; increasing support for and recognition of  faculty research;  devising an effective and timely transgender policy; continuing Barnard’s commitment to diversity; raising Barnard’s national and global visibility — have been noted. To these should be added the maintenance of good relations with Columbia officials, from President Bollinger and University provost John Coatsworth,  to the deans of Columbia’s undergraduate and professional schools. Indeed,  trans-Broadway comity had become so much the norm over the previous three decades that the  Sturm und Drang of the 70’s had all but faded from institutional memory. [22]

This is not to suggest that the Spar presidency was conflict–free.  The incumbent upon her arrival did little to hide her annoyance with many of the longstanding  administrative arrangements, especially those that limited her presidential authority by the need to obtain the approval of one standing committee or another made up of faculty and students. Most Barnard students were well- disposed toward her.  Those who had her as a teacher in a team-taught course, “Science and Public Policy, ” wrote what a colleague described as “rapturous evaluations.” Two student remembrances compiled at her leaving referred to her  glowingly as “D-Spar the Rock Star.”  [23]

Others took exception to specific actions of her administration. The student government (SGA) leadership in 2010 faulted Spar for  insufficient transparency during the budgetary cutbacks. In 2014 Barnard members  of Students for Palestinian Justice  complained that their divestment campaign against Israel had been subverted by new  campus rules limiting postering when a “Stand for Justice in Palestine” banner on the front of Barnard Hall had been unilaterally removed at the president’s direction. Still other students believed  Spar’s acceptance of a highly compensated place on the board of directors of Goldman, Sachs in 2011 was inappropriate,  and the explanation that she did so to press women’s issues  disingenuous.  [24]

Spar kept up an active publishing  agenda  throughout her presidency, with mixed results. Her  Wonder Women: Sex,  and the Quest for Perfection (2013), had as its target audience women of professional standing. Favorably disposed reviewers   compared the book with her friend Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013) as an instance of “second wave feminism,” while critics saw it as a paean to  “corporate feminism.” Both  readings acknowledged Wonder Women’s topicality. [25]

But it was Spar’s  2016 op-ed, “Aging and my Beauty Dilemma,” in The New York Times  on  the utility of cosmetic surgery that became one of the most widely commented upon  recent college presidential statements. And with reason. Only Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” tops its opening sentence: “When I was 21, I underwent breast reduction surgery, reducing my embarrassingly large chest to something that could at least fit inside a cardigan.”  “Appreciated” and “timely” declared some readers;  “shocked”  and “appalled” said others,  both camps including self-identifying Barnard alumnae. [26]

There were also issues internal to the Spar administration that drew criticism. Some felt  Dorothy Denburg’s abrupt removal as Dean of the College in 2011 encapsulated the president’s determination, in sidelining the  senior administrator whose loyalty to the College was legendary and who possessed the longest institutional memory,  to make the College over into the “Harvard Business School on the Hudson.” Her commissioning  McKinsey &Company to conduct a review of administrative procedures, and then apparently acting on its  recommendations (the report was never made public) only reinforced that impression. One of these changes, placing of the Office of Alumnae Relations under the direction of the Vice President for Development and the accompanying downgrading of the alumnae director’s responsibilities,  was seen by some to reduce alumnae to fund-raising targets rather than vital parts of the college community. It also cost Barnard the services of another alumna, Erin Frederick, BC ’88, who resigned as Director of Alumnae Relations.  Some alumnae also took exception to the appointment of women to the Board of Trustees who were not Barnard graduates, still others to the president’s outfits. [27]

Faculty also  exercised their constitutional right – reinforced in some cases by tenure – to grouse.  The presidential decision to move from a five-course to four-course teaching program  in 2011 was hailed by faculty except those in  departments  — the sciences and economics — where four-course programs had been the norm since the 1990s. But the shift left the incoming provost, Linda A. Bell,  and department chairs  scrambling to staff the courses that remained a regular part of their offerings but which regular faculty no longer taught. Simply dropping those courses was not an option, given departmental requirements and the ongoing  need to attract numbers of Columbia students across Broadway to maintain a reasonable cross-registration balance and avoid a reverse migration.  Increasing  the size of the faculty in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis  lacked  the approval of an increasingly tenure-leery board. [28]

Several  departments turned to  hiring part-time instructors  on a semester-to-semester basis as determined by student demand .  Another response was to fill gaps created by retirements or resignations of tenured or tenure-ladder faculty  with three-year non-renewable term assistant professorships. This category was not an invention of the Spar administration, it or comparable temporary appointments having been used sparingly in the past as financial exigencies dictated. But in 2012 and 2103,  term assistant professorships  accounted for most of the full-time faculty appointments. [29]

Meanwhile,  untenured but tenure-eligible assistant professors remained subject  to the ticking tenure clock. In their case, however, prospects for securing tenure during the Spar presidency actually improved . Credit here must go in part to the work of Barnard faculty back in 2002 who constituted the Tenure Process Review Committee that had, after a thorough investigation of the workings of the Ad Hoc system, called for its replacement. This occurred in  2011, with the support of Columbia provost Alan Brinkley,  by procedures  where the qualifications of Barnard nominees are reviewed by a selection of standing members of a  Provost- appointed Tenure Review Advisory Committee (TRAC), produced fewer negative outcomes– and fewer occasions for provostial intervention. Reversals of Barnard nominees for tenure  have since become increasingly rare and only occurred at the same rate as at other Columbia schools. Between 2011 and 2017, of the 25 Barnard faculty nominees submitted to TRAC, 23 were approved and secured tenure. Some of the credit for this record must go to the rigorous vetting of departmental nominations by the Barnard Appointments and Tenure Committee, chaired by Provost Bell. [30]
An administrative initiative launched in 2012 was the creation of a Committee on Faculty Diversity and Inclusion (FCDI), chaired successively by Janet Jacobsen in Women’s Studies and Debra Minkoff in sociology. While its existence attests to  the College’s commitment to diversity as a goal, the committee  has also made clear through a  survey of faculty that many faculty remained unhappy with the pace and scope of diversification. This was especially so among  faculty respondents  who self-identified as persons of color, as LGBTQ, or as coming from working-class or first-generation-college-going   backgrounds. Women faculty were overall more critical of College efforts than men and  those in the humanities somewhat more so than in the sciences.  Associate professors  in general  numbered disproportionately among the dissatisfied. As Debra Minkoff, who, along with Rebecca Friedkin, director of institutional research, conducted the survey,  summarized the results:
Two-thirds of respondents agree that Barnard “has a long-standing commitment
to faculty diversity” and “ senior administrators who regularly speak about the
value of faculty diversity.” Women, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, and associate
professors are significantly less likely to agree with both of these statements. [31]

As one of the last acts of the Spar presidency, the committee in February identified three action areas to transform the College into a more representative, inclusive, and equitable campus.

  • Develop and implement organizational structures and practices that promote diversity, inclusion and equity across the College (structural changes);
  • Build an inclusive campus-wide culture and community that is based on shared principles of representation, inclusion, and social justice (community-building and climate); and
  • Institutionalize structures of accountability at every level in order to ensure constant, sustained, and effective systemic change (assessment and accountability).

The committee’s principal recommendation, since adopted by the board of trustees: hire ten new faculty from underrepresented groups in the next five years. [32]

The current existence  of four tiers of full-time faculty – tenured; tenure-eligible;  term-and-tenure-ineligible;  off-ladder — alongside  growing numbers of part-time instructors, strains the notion of the Barnard faculty as a community of institutionally dedicated teachers and scholars.  Those at the top of the occupational pyramid, tenured professors and associate professors, now constitute a privileged and shrinking minority.  Included among them is a growing number who have stayed on beyond the retirement-eligible age of 65.  Meanwhile, more of the actual classroom teaching falls to women and men whose ties to Barnard are  transactional and contingent. These include full-time off-ladder faculty whose appointments are subject to periodic reviews  and terminations based on economic exigencies. [33]

It was perhaps inevitable that the bottom of the faculty pyramid would seek a measure of occupational security through unionization and  collective bargaining. In 2014 a group of contingent faculty moved to secure representation from the National Labor Relations Board as a bargaining unit under the organizational umbrella of the United Auto Workers.  Barnard voluntarily recognized the union in October 2015. After threatening to strike, in February 2017, the Barnard Contingent Faculty – BC – UAW  2110,  with 200 members,  signed its first contract with the College. Terms included an increase in wages, a measure of job-continuity if not job-security,  and some health care coverage; all  went into effect  at the start of the 2017-18 academic year. [34]
Other recorded  complaints with the Spar presidency:  the Athena Center for Leadership Studies represented  a departure from the College’s liberal arts focus;  the occupational preponderance of trustees appointed during the Spar presidency drawn mostly from Wall Street, along with  Spar’s acceptance of the  Goldman, Sachs directorship and the pattern of invited guests to campus from the world of finance and management consulting, reinforced the impression of Barnard as becoming the captive of the capitalistic ethos.  Even Spar’s touted prowess as a fundraiser  was seen by some as overrated in that the three principal donors to her capital campaign were longtime benefactors of the College. [35]

Unquestionably, Debora Spar differed in matters minor and major from the Barnard leaders who preceded her. An instance of the former: her sartorial presence and the attention paid to it.  One of the semi-official exit interviews following her departure, by the novelist and  trustee chair emerita, Anna Quindlen,  alluded to  both.  Quindlen’s affectionate send-off  of her friend opened with  an account  of Spar’s reaction to a mock-up of the cover for her  Wonder Women: Sex,  Power and the Quest for Perfection (2013),  which featured a stylishly dressed, attractive  woman afloat and upside down.
DS: “The shoes are wrong.”
AQ: “That is  Debora Spar in a nutshell, a woman who casts such a wide net in her everyday life that she is capable of running Barnard College, researching and arguing the case against perfection mania – and  focusing on the fact that the shoes on that cover model were dowdy.”  Quindlen returned to the incident  to close the interview:  “And, naturally, when the book was published, the cover model wore  black stilettos. The right shoes.”  [36]

  1. Do Presidents Matter?

Nearly all the substantive criticisms  of the Spar presidency came accompanied with  subjective  misgivings  that Spar’s mix of gravitas and glamour  favored the latter. But did it? And even if it did, what impact did  what  critics called her “presidential glitz”  and “diva turns” have on the long-term well being of the College?  Might  dwelling  on presidential actions and presidential personae  give both a determinative importance for the state of the college that neither merit?  Even to suggest it might, however,  raises a still more fundamental question:  “Do college presidents really matter?”  Having here belatedly broached the possibility that presidents (and before McIntosh, deans) might  have been less determinative in the history of Barnard College than the foregoing has argued, it is incumbent at least to offer a prospectus of what an alternative interpretive framework might look like.

A history of Barnard that makes individual presidents less determinative of institutional wellbeing would likely focus on the continuities, long-term trends and recurrent cycles that extend over any one  presidency. Examples of continuities would be Barnard’s location in New York City and its limited finances as compared with its peers (what my mother would have called its ”champagne tastes and beer pocketbook”). Examples of trends and cycles would include those identified with the national  economy (inflation/deflation; wealth concentration/wealth dispersion), the local scene (crime rates)   demographic developments (birth rates; migration patterns). No Barnard president has agency over these larger forces; all are subject to them.

A modified version of this counter argument allows that presidents matter more in the formative stages of an institution but less as the institution matures  and becomes more subject to bureaucratic imperatives and “case law.” Something of this argument has been applied to the history of American national politics, where personal clashes – Jefferson vs. Hamilton – dominated the early going, only to be displaced by political parties that gave the political system a more enduring  organizational character. The same can be said of the history of other  institutions – the US postal service, IBM, the Catholic Church – that once had charismatic leaders – Ben Franklin, Thomas Watson, Saint Peter — but have long since become depersonalized corporate entities. So too with academic institutions at a certain stage in their histories?  So too with Barnard?

  1.  Two Cheers for Diversity
                                                                                       Only connect.
    E.M. Forster, Howards End  [37]

A  similar presidential-exculpatory  case can be made for long-term changes occurring internally at Barnard.  An example is admissions trends. Both the  upward swing in applications and the accompanying increase in selectivity  began in the last years of the Futter presidency,  continued almost uninterruptedly through  both the Shapiro and Spar presidencies,  and show no signs of flattening at the outset of the Beilock presidency. If so, which president deserves credit for an admissions trend of this duration? All four or none?   Might it not as  reasonably be credited to the sustained efforts of successive directors of admissions and deans of the college? When the trend ends,  we will likely have a president to blame, but might she be only the otherwise innocent  victim of bad timing?

It might also be argued that the actions or personalities of individual presidents  are less determinative of institutional wellbeing than long-term changes  internal to the College’s other major constituencies.  Changes  affecting the trustees  include the shortening of average terms  of service and  the occupational shift away from lawyers and clergy to Wall  Streeters, and the geographical dispersion from the Upper East Side to the ends of the world. All could be viewed as  part of the century-long-“de-WASPification”  and feminization  of the board and have less to do with presidential agency than  the changing composition of New York’s “very earnest, philanthropic, public-spirited class.”

As regards Barnard’s students, might the impact of changes in their makeup and motives also be unduly minimized by a focus on presidential agency?  Surely their increasing diversity—geographic, racial, economic – and changes in the reasons young women seek to come to Barnard  and in their occupational aspirations beyond Barnard.
The  same imputed impact  of the increasing  social diversity of Barnard’s trustees and students applies to the faculty. It  began  in the early 1900s when a teaching staff dominated by men experienced  the first hiring of  women  in numbers, continued in the 1950s with the welcoming of  Jews, in the 1970s with the first hires of  African Americans, and latterly by the recruitment in numbers of Asians and Hispanics. Foreign nationals have always had a presence in the Barnard faculty, but the earlier preponderance of Europeans among them has given way to a more representative mix of the world’s people. The rate of diversification might have slowed during one presidency and accelerated during another, but its doing so could as easily be attributed to larger social factors and internal faculty pressure  than presidential policy.

A final point in support of this  “not-my-job”  theory of presidential accountability involves  the growth of the administrative staff focused on student services, which again began in the 1950s, accelerated in the 1980s and shows no signs of abating, has characterized all post-WW II presidencies. Here, too, individual presidents seem at least partial captives to larger factors – among them  competition with richer peer colleges – that make prohibitive the risks of trend-bucking.  But more importantly it has been the recognition  among college officials of an acute need for more staff to assist an increasingly fragile student body. Mental health issues are rampant ta ll campuses – not just Barnard.

One could easily extend  this list of societal developments  impinging on the history of Barnard College  which its presidents have had little responsibility for generating,  but which have importantly influenced, possibly determined,  the retrospective assessment of their tenure. To do so is to make presidential success or failure what the Marxists called  an epiphenomenon of larger forces. Such a position has considerable historiographical precedent, as witness Fernard Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Era of Phillip II (1923-49) and Lewis Namier’s  The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1928), in which the roles played by reigning monarchs (and in Namier’s case prime ministers) are minimized in comparison with the impact, in Braudel’s case, of the environment over time (la longue duree) or in Namier’s,   “human ants hurrying in long files along their various paths.” Accordingly,  the nearly nine years of the Spar presidency can be seen as institutionally successful in sustaining the positive momentum generated over the previous three decades even as the jury remains out – and likely to remain so for some time – on the efficacy of the Spar presidency. [39]

Interpretive escape effected? Not quite. Invoking  the “who-should-escape-whipping?” defense, while exonerating a president of personal responsibility,  also limits the possibility of presidential agency. This may be  the case with the histories of large and impersonal organizations, or even smaller ones in the “long run,” accepting Keynes’s cautionary point that “in the long run we are all dead.”  But it may not apply in the case of the relatively  short and personality-infused history of American liberal arts colleges, which remain relatively small institutions, at their best  communities more than corporations. They are made distinctive by a combination of characteristics that make their individual histories  unique.

And so for Barnard, with its acknowledged four characteristics: a liberal arts college for women in the City of New York, affiliated with Columbia University.  This account  argues for  three other enduring attributes: chronically under-capitalized;  a singularly heterogeneous student and alumnae body; early home to a college faculty of “scholar/teachers.”         Barnard’s successful leaders have  accepted and subscribed to all these characteristics, though not equally. Emily James Smith paid more heed to the Columbia connection than to the scholarly aspirations of Barnard’s  teachers; McIntosh attended more on improving the College’s shaky finances than on its liberal arts curriculum; Futter made less of Barnard as a women’s college than as a small liberal arts college; Shapiro made more of its New York locale than its modest endowment.

Among Barnard’s  arguably less  successful leaders,  Gill and  Peterson never felt at home in New York, while Mattfeld never appreciated the Columbia affiliation.  Gildersleeve and Park were made  uncomfortable by the College’s  persistent heterogeneity and Spar  paid scant notice to the college’s liberal arts tradition.   But taken in aggregate, all eleven leaders  have  throughout Barnard’s  130 years served the College well, thus making effective administrative leadership by women yet another hallmark of the college’s history. A bracing finding for all who hold Barnard dear and an emboldening one at the outset of a new  and promising presidency of Sian Leah Beilock.

Having thus backed away from a last-moment conversion to Barnard’s history as the story of impersonal forces and returned, if not to Emerson’s  gender-specific pronouncement of history “as but the lengthened shadow of a single man,” to the belief that  individual Barnard presidents can and have mattered, let me conclude with a specific and contemporary instance where I believe presidential agency is required.  It concerns Barnard’s ongoing  commitment to diversity and inclusion, which I consider an affirmation of Barnard at its heterogenous and cosmopolitan best. But I also believe  recent progress to the goal of a fully inclusive Barnard has brought the college to a point in its history where it becomes important to stress what we share in common. This holds for Barnard trustees and students, administrators  and alumnae, though most of my evidence, such as it is, is confined here to its faculty.

Those who make up the Barnard faculty in 2018-19 have fewer ties to Barnard, to Columbia, to New York City, to women’s education and to each other than did  Barnard faculty earlier. That is to say they have less in common than did  faculty in 1989-90, and less still than did faculty in 1964-65. While today’s faculty contain about  the same proportion of  women as these two earlier data points, far fewer of these women attended a women’s college. And whereas in 1964 more than half the Barnard faculty of whatever gender pursued their  graduate studies at Columbia, in  2019,  only about one in seven had done so. Most of us now come “from somewhere else,”  whereas earlier most had lived either in if New York or the northeast  prior to joining the faculty. One unintended consequence  of fostering  social diversity is an attendant decline in common experiences. In championing differences and the many  distinctive identities among us, we risk remaining permanent  strangers to each other. [40]

This posited estrangement can be roughly scaled  by constructing a  composite index that specifies and  applies weights to five biographical considerations that together make for the consummate  Barnard faculty “homebody”:
—  gender (women = 2; men = 0);
— geographical origins (New York City = 3 points; Other Northeast = 2; Other US = 1; Foreign = 0)
— college type (Barnard = 4 points; Columbia College or Sister college= 3 points;
Other private college = 1 point; public or foreign university = 0 points);
— graduate school type (Columbia = 4 points; Other Ivy or Sister = 3 points; Other US private = 2 points;
Other US public = 1 point;  foreign university = 0 points)
— longevity of service (30+ years =  points; 20+ = 2 points; 10+ = 1 point; < 10 =   0 points)

By this scoring,  the complete faculty homebody  — HBI = 15 — would be a New-York City-reared female graduate of Barnard and Columbia who served on the Barnard faculty for more than three decades. The consummate newcomer  – HBI = 0 – would be a male faculty member reared and trained outside the United States and whose teaching connection with Barnard had been for less than a decade.  When applied to all 832 Barnard faculty, the mean HBI is 6.2.  When applied to each of the five eras used here to discriminate changes over the course of Barnard’s history, the HBI has steadily declined,  from a high of 8.3 in the 1889-1914 era to the most recent era (1990-2018) when it is 5.1. [41]


When this demographic reality is combined with the ascendancy within the faculty of the scholar-teacher ethos and the specialization enforced by that ethos, the tendency toward social isolation is compounded. As specialized scholars, we look to fellow specialists on other campuses and even  in other countries for colleagueship and collaboration rather than to members of our own departments. We communicate with these far flung colleagues via the internet, not by face-to-face interaction at lunch.   Nor do we  see  department colleagues as engaged with us in a collective and institution-rooted  pedagogical enterprise   — teaching the sweep of English literature  or the  range of  psychology  at Barnard College – but each with our own designated patch — and our own allotment of students. We historians have come a long way from where the future president of Brown University, and one-time Barnard trustee, Henry M. Wriston, described college-based historians on the eve of World War II: “Any member of the history department should be able to give any of the undergraduate courses in history, most of the courses in government, and with a special effort, one or two courses in economics or sociology.” We have become each of us, in the argot of the marketplace, independent contractors, with Barnard (metaphor-switch alert!) our professional perch,  ready to alight should our professional ambitions beckon  us to a higher branch on a taller tree. [42]

By pointing to the operative centrifugal and atomizing pressures affecting the current state of the Barnard faculty – and by extension Barnard generally –I am hardly breaking  new ground. Every faculty member who has served as a department chair has had to reckon with them. Even as chairs bask in the glow that covers their departments when a member receives a prestigious research grant, it falls to them to come up with arrangements to cover the about-to-be-absent  grantee’s  teaching and student-advising duties, typically by calling on one of the department’s fewer and fewer  homebodies to do so.  Similarly, several ongoing  efforts by Barnard’s  provost, Linda Bell, including  sponsoring College-wide lectures and discussions, have sought to mitigate the silo effect of departmental  isolation  A still more recent  initiative of the newly installed President Beilock  is to have  faculty meet and talk with trustees about their teaching and research. This dialogue  gives promise of greater understanding across what has at times seemed to be an impermeable constituency border. [43]
This same tendency toward mutual estrangement obtains among the college’s other constituencies. The Barnard Board of Trustees today is far less  likely to share residential zip codes and somewhat less occupational pursuits, while becoming more racially  and ethnically diverse than it was thirty years ago. And with shorter tenures, members have less time to get to know each other or the workings of the College. They also have fewer sources of independent knowledge  and are  more dependent upon  assessments provided by senior administrators. [44]
Yet these same administrators today are less likely to have come for the student body or from the faculty than earlier, and less likely to see Barnard as their permanent place of employment and more as a moment in a non-institution-bounded career. Of the dozen  senior administrators who make up the President’s Council in the summer of 2019, only three have been at Barnard  more than three years  and only two are graduates of Barnard. None has  prior experience  as a Barnard faculty member. [45]


Centrifucal forces are also at work among today’s students. Entering classes contain a majority of women of color, with substantial numbers identifying as other than cis-female;  fewer have ties to each other or, despite an uptick in legacies,  to  earlier Barnard student populations. As the college’s public announcements regularly highlight,  Barnard students now come from all across America and beyond, with California residents  second only to New Yorkers in sheer numbers. Such cosmopolitanism, while in the main properly celebrated, comes at a cost.

Less often acknowledged is the likelihood that the College’s nearly two decades of increasing selectivity has been accompanied  by a widening  gap in the financial circumstances of recent Barnard classes.  Traditionally, and unlike those of the other Sister and Ivy colleges, the Barnard student body came mostly from families of modest financial means.  When first introduced in the early 1980s to provide financial assistance to qualified applicants from low-income families, Pell grant recipients included  a larger percentage of Barnard entering classes (22%) than any of the other Sisters and all but Columbia among the Ivies. The most recent comparison has Barnard with a  substantially smaller percentage of its students Pell recipients (16%) and a ranking below that of Wellesley,  Smith and several other of  what Millicent McIntosh in the 1950s  slyly called  the “plutocratic colleges.”  [45]

Other data  support the notion that more of today’s Barnard students are likely to come from wealthy families  than earlier students, even as those from strained financial circumstances are more publicly acknowledged.  Whereas into the 1970s, between two-thirds and three-quarters of entering classes were prepared at public schools, the most recent entering classes have been  evenly divided between public and privately prepared.  Less clear cut but suggestive, the percentage of admitted applicants applying for financial aid in 2019 was lower than earlier years and lower  than the percentage reported by any of the remaining Sister colleges. In 1997 students on financial aid made up 47% of the student body; in 2006, 41%; in 2018, 39%. And then there is the succinct declarative statement of a recent trustee in 2006:  “The best prepared students come from richer families.” Thus the conclusion seems warranted that while Barnard remains the poorest of the Sister Colleges and poorer than – at last tally – xxx other colleges, its student body is less likely  to share  the common  experience of coming  from the nation’s “aspiring crowds.” [45.]

It is this integrative challenge that a president of Barnard today is uniquely positioned to meet.. The president as flywheel, as broker, joining  together disparate parts of the community in a common enterprise.  She need not be “one of us” at her installation; indeed, an outsider may be better able to sense the need for the integration of Barnard’s many disparate parts.  But she must, in dealing with each of the college’s separate and at times competing constituencies, be cognizant of the collective value of shared experiences. One such common experience, however brief,  is our connection  with the arc of Barnard’s history, which,  I have argued here, has been an  imperfect but improving one.  Another is that we are all New Yorkers, by birthright or conscious choice. By connecting with Barnard’s  past, warts and all, critically as well as in celebration, and with our city, may we in the future  all more fruitfully connect with each other.