Ellen V. Futter — Biographical Outline

Ellen V. Futter

  1.                                                 Children’s Crusade

      After a decade of tense  relations with  Columbia – and their termination of two presidents,  both seasoned academic administrators – the Barnard trustees turned to one of their own to play out what some took to be the College’s endgame.  Their doing so was in itself a departure from most past precedent. In 1900, between Deans James and Gill, in 1907, between Gill and Gildersleeve, in 1930-31 during Gildersleeve’s sick leave and during her wartime absences, and as recently  as  1975, between Peterson and Mattfeld,  the trustees had put a faculty member into the breach. The only exception was in 1946, upon Gildersleeve’s retirement, when trustee-chairman elect  Helen Rogers Reid filled in as acting dean (chairing faculty meetings with her trademark hat on) . Finding someone conversant with the issues and available on short notice  to serve as acting president took some weeks but on July 10 the trustees announced the results of their internal search.

The appointment of Ellen V. Futter as acting president, two months shy of her 30th birthday,  surprised  everyone outside the  Barnard board – and quite possibly some within. Faculty representatives to the board learned of her selection in The New York Times. Futter’s youth  was only part of what made the appointment unusual.  Although a Barnard graduate, she had been a transfer, arriving after two years attending the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin. (Her home in Port Washington rendered her ineligible for first-year housing at Barnard.).Her professional training was in the law and her occupational experience was as an associate in one of New York’s largest and most prestigious firms, Milbank, Tweed and Hadley, where she was a corporate attorney. Whereas Barnard’s four previous heads had all been academics with  extensive administrative and/or  teaching experience, she brought neither to her new job.  [The only previous non-academic was  Laura Drake Gill. Not reassuring.] The post was defined as “acting,” with the explicit understanding that Futter would return to Milbank, Tweed within a year upon Barnard finding a permanent president. This assurance  did little to allay the immediate concern among some faculty and alumnae that the trustees  had acted precipitately, if not in panic. The appointee later recalled  her selection being likened in some quarters to the desperate launching  of “a children’s crusade.”

In hindsight, the appointment is easier to understand. The leadership  vacuum created by Mattfeld’s departure could not wait on a national search; it had to be filled quickly. But who would take the job on the fly was another concern. This called for  someone  on the scene,  readily available and conversant with the issues.  Mattfeld’s dean of the faculty, Charles S. Olton, was still relatively new to the Barnard community, was not tenured, and had barely escaped being fired along with his boss.   Someone might conceivably have been drawn from the senior faculty,  but none was sufficiently  informed of the issues or had the confidence  of the board.  And because  faculty were so divided over both the firing Mattfeld — 70  members had signed a petition decrying it —  and the proper approach to Columbia,  the appointment of one of them might only exacerbate the all too obvious faculty discord.

Thus, from the perspective of the trustees, turning to one of their own to serve as acting president seemed a more attractive alternative. In Futter’s case, a leave of absence from Milbank, Tweed, a firm with many links to the Barnard board,  could be arranged without jeopardizing her prospects for a partnership.  At the same time, Futter’s  youth was not the liability that some outsiders saw it to be. It might make  her relations with  students easier, not an insignificant factor considering the frayed relations between Mattfeld and student leaders during her last months. That students might see her as an older sister rather than someone at one- or two- generation remove had its potential advantages. So did the newsworthiness of an elite Seven Sisters college entrusting it presidency to one of its graduates two years short of her tenth reunion.  Faculty who had taught her a decade earlier were prepared to certify both her abilities and her being one of the grown ups.

Futter’s youth was also misleading in so far as it implied an absence of relevant experience. Of all her predecessors only Virginia Gildesleeve, who became  dean at 34,  brought as much local and institutional  knowledge to the job.  Like Gildersleeve,  Futter was a New Yorker, born in the City (September 21, 1949) and raised in Port Washington,  a near suburb on the north shore of Long Island. Her father Victor was a graduate of Columbia College (1939) and Columbia Law School (1942), and a respected member of the New York bar. He was also an active Columbia alumnus and had served as president of the Columbia College Alumni Association.  Futter’s  mother was a middle-school librarian and her grandmother had been a graduate of Teachers College and friend of Sarah Butler (Barnard 1915), the only daughter of Nicholas Murray Butler.   Again, like Gildersleeve,  Futter was a Barnard graduate (1971), magna cum laude, and student leader.   She was also a graduate of Columbia’s law school, where Michael I. Sovern, who became  Columbia’s 17th president two weeks before her appointment as Barnard’s acting president, had been her dean.
Where Futter’s prior experience exceeded that of Gildersleeve was her eight years  as a member of the Barnard board of trustees. Appointed in 1972 at age 22 to fill the vacated seat of Arthur Goldberg upon his appointment to the Supreme Court,  having earlier served two years  as the board’s third non-voting  student representative, she soon became a junior member of the inner circle of trustees,  consisting of trustee veteran Eleanor Elliott, the newly appointed William Golden, Arthur Altschul  and Helene Kaplan, plus the ex-president of the University of Rhode Island Frank Newman and the banker Dale Horowitz, who joined the board in 1977. Together they shaped board policy with respect to Columbia in the late 1970s and,  although  without Futter’s direct involvement,  effected Mattfeld’s resignation. So, to the extent that the Board saw Barnard’s fate as an autonomous college affiliated with Columbia University in its hands,  giving the ball to its youngest member  made  eminent sense.

Bob McCaughey
July 24, 2017


B. September 1949 in NYC; raised on north shore of Long Island (Port Washington) ; father Victor a corporate attorney and law professor; graduate of Columbia College (1939),  CU law (1942) and active alumnus; mother a school librarian; Ellen a competitive tennis player in high school; older brother a CC graduate; and younger sister
1967-69 – undergraduate at University of Wisconsin; transferred as junior to Barnard in Fall 1969; — Initially not eligible for on-campus housing
1969-1971 – English major; active in student government; PBK,  magna cum laude graduate;
April 1971 – one of two elected but non-voting student representatives to trustees (succeeded Dorothy Urman ’70);
Push to have student representatives given voting rights
September 1971 – Began  CU Law School
February 1972 – Elected to a 3-year term as voting alumna member of Board of Trustees; re-elected in 1975
Married law school contemporary John Shutkin —
1974 – Graduated with J.D. from law school; associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy
July 1980 – Appointed acting president following ouster of Jacelyn Mattfeld three weeks earlier; takes one-year leave of absence from law firm
May 1981 – Elected 5th president of Barnard; authorized to discuss coeducation with new CU president (and her law school professor) Michael I. Sovern.
September 20, 1981 – First child, Anne Victoria, born.
Fall 1981 – Discussions with CU confirm the absence of a agreement that could keep CC from admitting women
December 1981 – President Sovern informs EVF of CU decision to have CC admit women in fall 1983; offer concession on faculty tenuring arrangements to secure agreement (or acceptance of a fait accompli)
January 22, 1982 – Barnard trustees agree to CC move to admit women in exchange for modification in Ad Hoc faculty tenure procedures

EVF now sets out to establish BC’s viability under this new dispensation

Fundraising efforts
Curricular review –-> Freshman Seminars/QR/ Centennial Scholars….
Meeting trustee-mandated limits on faculty size and percentage of tenured

1983 – BC-CU Athletic consortium
1986 – Decision to go ahead with NY State borrowed money to build dormitory (“Centennial Hall”)

1989 – Year-long centennial celebration

May 1993 – Resigned to accept presidency of American Museum of Natural History
Last updated: May 14, 2014
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