Short History of Barnard-Columbia Relations

A  Short History of Barnard-Columbia Relations


Barnard  opened in 1889 as a coordinate college for women  with the sufferance  but not the financial assistance  of the all-male Columbia College.  Columbia  president  F. A. P.  Barnard (1864-1889) opposed its separate creation, favoring instead a co-educational Columbia College. Barnard’s successor, Seth Low (1890-1901), was more favorably disposed, his wife Anne serving on the Barnard board and he personally underwriting the initial salaries of Barnard’s first three permanent faculty appointments in 1895. Low, along with Barnard dean Emily James Smith (1894-1900), secured his trustees’ acceptance of the 1900 intercorporate agreement that established a distinct Barnard faculty and to this day defines the basic relationship between the two institutions,  and which until 1982 gave Barnard sole responsibility for the instruction of undergraduate women.

Low’s successor, Nicholas Murray Butler (1902-1945), was more skeptical of Barnard’s place in the University, while Dean Smith’s successor, Laura Drake Gill (1901-07), was less adroit at managing the relationship. Gill’s resignation in 1907 led to a four-year period in which Barnard’s continued existence as a free-standing unit within the University remained  very much in doubt. In 1910, citing faculty defections and a shaky enrollments picture, Butler proposed to the Barnard Board of Trustees a deal that would have merged Barnard into Columbia and ended its  semi-autonomous  status.

Resistance from parts of the Barnard board staved off the merger until a compromise was effected in early 1911 whereby the Barnard deanship went to Virginia C. Gildersleeve, a Barnard graduate (1899), an assistant professor of English at both Barnard and Columbia, and the personal choice of President Butler. During Gildersleeve’s 36 years as dean,  she closely aligned herself with Butler’s policies, not least those limiting the admission of Jews to Columbia’s respective colleges. One area where Barnard did diverge from Columbia during the interwar years was its curriculum, with Columbia  opting for a core curriculum as a preparation for professional training and Barnard adopting one more focused on disciplinary specialization.

During the interwar years, several male faculty initially appointed at Barnard either migrated to Columbia or held appointments in bith the Barnard faculty and one of the University’s graduate faculties. These arrangements were not extended to Barnard female faculty.

The two decades following World War II constituted an era of “benign neglect,” in which Columbia (in the persons of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower (1948-1953) and Grayson Kirk (1953-1968)) allowed Barnard Dean/ President Millicent C. McIntosh (1947-1962) and Rosemary Park (1962-1967) to operate with little  oversight or interference. During these years Barnard benefitted from its relationship with Columbia in many tangible ways (e.g.,  Barnard students had limited access to courses taught  at Columbia; access to the University’s libraries and some of its athletic facilities) without paying for them.

These generous arrangements ended abruptly with the naming of William  McGill to the Columbia presidency in 1970. His charge from his trustees was to put Columbia’s  finances back in order after several years of deficit budgets, growing debt and declines in alumni giving in the wake of the 1968 campus disturbances.  His solution was to exact from  the respective schools of the University more of their revenues to cover  general expenses traditionally incurred and covered by the University’s central administration. Although financially distinct and governed by its own board, Barnard was not exempted from  this new way of conducting business and was now expected to pay for whatever benefits it enjoyed to which  Columbia could affix a price tag.

Barnard’s faculty also came to be seen as in play, such that its merger into Columbia’s faculty might allow Columbia to shed faculty on both sides of Broadway, reduce course redundancies and take advantage of Barnard’s lower salaries and heftier teaching programs. Toward this end Columbia officials, with the support of Barnard President Martha Peterson (1968-1975),  persuaded the Barnard trustees to agree to submit  Barnard faculty tenure cases to Columbia for final determination to an ad hoc system controlled by the University provost. Simultaneously, access to Columbia courses by Barnard students – and vice versa – was substantially expanded, with the difference from the past being that the net imbalance would be paid for by Barnard transferring tuition dollars to Columbia. Access to the University’s libraries and athletic facilities now came with an annual  bill of several hundred thousand dollars. Although only a small part of Columbia’s financial distress could ever have been relieved by these new exactions, they represented a life-threatening challenge to Barnard.

Another source of BC/CU tension in the 1970s was the growing recognition of those at Columbia with an interest in or responsibility for Columbia  College that  maintaining  its male-only character had left it the least selective of the Ivy colleges and precluded any prospects  of expansion  without a serious decline in quality. This led to calls from three successive deans for the College to admit women, whatever the impact of doing so might have on Barnard. While President McGill and others in central administration staved off these calls through the 1970s, McGill because the of the up-front costs of conversion  and the negative publicity that would attend the likely scuttling of Barnard,  his successor in 1980, Michael I. Sovern (1980-1993), while also leery of being seen as “the butcher of Barnard,” was more open to the need to settle the issue, if in part to allow him to move to his agenda.

Last ditch efforts in 1981 by Barnard president Ellen V. Futter (1980-1993) to assure Columbia College “defacto co-education” by Barnard providing  students sufficient to make Columbia classes 40% women failed when  the lost-revenue estimates  Barnard would experience  proved prohibitive. Columbia announced in late December 1981 that it would begin enrolling women students in the fall of 1983. A deal was then negotiated between the two boards whereby Barnard  agreed to change the 1900 Agreement allowing Columbia College to admit women, and where Columbia modified the terms of the 1973 Ad Hoc policy affecting Barnard faculty tenure cases in a way favored by Barnard. Both sides then awaited the consequences.

For Columbia, the opening of the College to women brought immediate  positive results. The overall quality of its recruitment improved markedly, allowing the College thereafter to steadily increase its size (and revenues). Meanwhile, alumni support for the move was if not unanimous, widespread.  For Barnard, the results were slower coming.  The College continued to struggle, despite innovations in recruitment,  with expanding its applications in a period when college-agers were in decline and women’s colleges in general were losing market share. The opening of a fourth dormitory in 1988 that allowed the College to guarantee all students admitted campus housing and the increased attractiveness of Barnard course offerings enticing  Columbia students westward allowed Barnard turn a decisive corner. The increasing attractiveness of  New York City provided an added boost to both Barnard and Columbia, while Columbia’s economic recovery during the Sovern presidency allowed  Barnard-Columbia relations to lose its “beggar-thy-neighbor”  quality that obtained in the 1970s and much of the 1980s. Subsequent intercorporate dealings during the Columbia administrations of George Rupp (1993-2003) and Lee Bollinger (2003 -) and those  of Judith R. Shapiro (1993-2008) and Debra Spar (2008-2016) at Barnard have been relatively placid, if not a return to the 1950s’ “Era of Good Feelings.”

Bob McCaughey,
[email protected]
November 20, 2017