Short History of Early Barnard Trusteedom

A Short History of Early Barnard Trusteedom

The Barnard Board of Trustees was constituted in the summer of 1889. Its initial 22 members were named  in a document seeking a provisional charter  from the New York State Board of Regents for the women’s college for which they pledged fiduciary responsibility. By intention, the list consisted of an equal number of men and women. It included the 22-year-old Annie Nathan Meyer, who had initiated the process of college-founding two years earlier, and the 35-year-old Ella Weed, an 1873  graduate of Vassar College and headmistress of Miss Annie Browne’s School.  They in turn had recruited several of the other New Yorkers on the list, including two of Weed’s college mates with teaching experience,  Frances Fisher Wood, Vassar 1874, and Helen Dawes Brown, Vassar 1878.  Other women included the University of Michigan graduate and school teacher Alice Williams, along with several women Meyer elsewhere referred to as “important by virtue of their spouses’ standing in their fields of endeavor.” Among these were Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, and  Mrs. Clara C. Stranahan, the wife of MR. James S.T. Stranahan, “the First Citizen” of Brooklyn.

Among the men were several Meyer first met when approached as possible signatories to the petition addressed to the Columbia College Board of Trustees in the spring of 1888. These included the bookman George A. Plimpton, along with the banker Jacob H. Schiff and the attorney Frederick  R.  Coudert. Although a majority of the board were Protestants of English heritage, the inclusion of  Schiff, a native of Frankfurt and the most prominent member of the City’s German-Jewish community, and Coudert, a leading Catholic layman whose father had been born in France,  was part of Meyer’s determination (she herself a member of the City’s small but self-regarding Sephardic community)  to have a board broadly representative of the City’s ethnic mix. Even among the Protestant majority, the presence of Baptists and Unitarians  offset the otherwise dominant presence of Episcopalians and Presbyterians and gave the original Barnard board – for its time —  a singularly ecumenical character.

Another  original board member-recruiter was Caroline Dutcher Choate, one of the leaders of New York society, a feminist and founder of the Brearley School,  whose husband Joseph H. Choate was one of the city’s leading lawyers.   As with many on the original board, the Choates were New Englanders of Puritan stock who only recently moved to New York City. More than half the male members were graduates of  New England colleges.

Most but not all of the original trustees came from wealth.  Mrs. Rockefeller, Jacob Schiff  and Mrs. Henrietta Talcott, whose husband James Talcott was a silk merchant, were among the City’s richest citizens. Others were highly paid professionals or the spouses of same. Of the 22 original members, xx employed three or more live-in servants. The Schiff residence made do with ten, the Choates and Rockefellers with eight. All but five of the original board members resided on the expensive East Side of Manhattan, within walking distance of the original college site at Madison and 44th Street.

Most were also socially connected, holding memberships in the City’s most prestigious and socially exclusive clubs. Of the board’s 16 male trustees or male spouses, 13 were members of the Century Club. Among those not Centurions, Jacob Schiff was excluded as a Jew and James Talcott by his opposition to social drinking. They epitomized what an English traveler to turn-of-the-century New York, Charles Philip Trevelyan, slyly called the City’s “very earnest, philanthropic, public-spirited class.”


Subsequent members were elected by the continuing members  as vacancies occurred. While three of the original members left after a year, among them Mrs. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan’s personal attorney, Francis Lynde Stetson, most stayed on for substantial terms.  The average tenure of the 22 original board and the 31 elected to the board between 1890 and 1914 was 18 years, 21 for the women and 16 for the men.  A similar pattern obtained among the 21 trustees elected between 1890 and 1914.

The Longest Serving Original  Trustees

Trustee Tenure # Years
Annie Nathan Meyer 1889-1951 62 years
George A. Plimpton 1889-1936 47
Caroline Choate 1889-1930 41
Helen Rogers Reid 1914-1956 42
Henrietta Talcott 1889-1926 37
Silas Brown Brownell 1889-1918 29


In 1897 the Barnard board approved a change in the governing statutes to reserve a seat on the board for an alumna elected by the Barnard Alumnae Association. Unlike the regular members, who held life terms, alumnae members were limited to four-year terms. Upon completion, however, they were sometimes subsequently elected to life terms. This was the case with  first designated alumnae member, Florence Colgate Speranza, BC 1895, who served as alumnae representative from 1898 to 1903 and then as a regularly elected member from 1906 to 1920.  The number of places reserved for alumnae representation were subsequently increased, first to two places in 19xx, and then to four in 19xx.

Board officers were elected annually by continuing members.  They chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer and secretary. While the first six board chairs were all men, four of them lawyers,  Helen Rogers Reid breaking that pattern in 1948, the vice–chair typically was occupied by a woman. Elizabeth Milbank Anderson served as vice-chair from 1899 until her death in 1920. The first treasurer was Jacob H. Schiff, who resigned the post in 1893 and from the board in 1897. His successor, George A. Plimpton served as treasurer form 1894 to his death in 1936, when he was succeeded by his son Francis T.P. Plimpton. The position of Board Secretary rotated more frequently. These offices constituted the Board’s executive committee, which also included some of the chairs of the board’s various sub-committees. Board meetings into the 1930s were not regularly held on the Morningside campus but at someone’s home or club on the more accessible East Side.

                                                                          Early Board Chairs

Chair Board Service Chair Service Occupation  
Arthur Brooks 1889-1895 1889-1895 Minister
Abram S. Hewitt 1895-1902 1895-1902 Manufacturer
Silas B. Brownell 1889-1917 1904-1917 Lawyer
John C. Milburn 1907-1930 1918-1930 Lawyer
James R. Sheffield 1918-1938 1931-1937 Lawyer
Lucius H. Beers 1919-1948 1938-1947 Lawyer
Mrs. Helen Rogers Reid 1914-1956 1948-1956 Publisher



During the interwar years membership on the Barnard board continued to be valued as a mark of responsible civic engagement among the City’s professional class.  The board’s original ecumenical character was continued with the ongoing membership of both  Catholics and Jews (Sarah Straus Hess (BC 1900) was elected an alumna trustee in 1919; Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger an alumna trustee in 1937).  The class homogeneity was only occasionally qualified  by the inclusion of a Barnard alumna or an educator of moderate means. Republicans remained  in the majority.

During the pre-WW I history of the College, many board members took an active part in its day-to-day workings. Some regularly corresponded with Columbia trustees and presidents. But soon into the deanship of Virginia C. Gildersleeve, which extended from 1911 to 1946, the board became less engaged with the operations of the College and more dependent upon their dean for information as to the state of the College. They also largely stayed aloof from fundraising, either as donors or in the earlier tradition of Treasurer Plimpton as mendicants. When Millicent McIntosh succeeded Gildersleeve in 1947, shebelieved her predecessor had purposefully kept the board uninformed as to the College’s strained finances  and deferred maintenance.  McIntosh’s deanship marked a return to the concept of an engaged  and informed board.
Bob McCaughey
January 9, 2018