Few people use the term “bluestocking” anymore—a rather pejorative word for an intellectual woman (perhaps the concept became unavoidable)—but until recently, many used it to refer to Barnard. It’s not that the girls of Columbia’s sister school are smarter than they are elsewhere, but rather that the college has a stuffy reputation (as antiquated as the word bluestocking itself). The school seems like part of another era; it didn’t merge with Columbia in 1983 when it had the chance—Radcliffe melded with Harvard and Pembroke nuzzled next to Brown—and Barnard stayed a pillar of all-female, second-wave feminist education. Unfortunately, it started to seem then like Columbia’s shrewish sister—a second choice for those who couldn’t get into the grander school.
At 45, she is the first Barnard president to have come of age after the feminist revolution, so she has the easy confidence —not stridency—of someone who grew up feeling that all doors were open to her, even if she later realized that some were only open a crack.
Since the 80s, Barnard has had a hard time shaking off its image as a relic; a bra-burning enclave that has yet to modernize for today’s woman. The campus itself can seem dauntingly serious-minded with its wrought iron Victorian gates, perched on Broadway and 116th street like a private entrance to the past, and its inner quadrangle, sprinkled with gas lamps and Ionic columns.
Enter through those gates: Debora Spar.
The new president, Spar is young (45), headstrong, and prepared to turn Barnard’s reputation from that of a schlumpy all-girls academy into one of excellence and forward thinking. As cliché as it sounds to say she is shaking things up, there is no better way to describe what she intends to do on campus.
Previous presidents have not been so successful: 1983 was a crisis moment for Barnard, and the board made a bold decision. It chose a young lawyer and alumna, Ellen Futter, to be president—she was barely 30 and didn’t have a Ph.D. In a decade at the helm, Futter (who later became president of the American Museum of Natural History, despite no science background) steadied the ship...somewhat. She launched a huge fundraising campaign and built a new dorm to make the campus fully residential. She made it clear that, concerns or not, Barnard was not going away.
Still, the school did not attract the world’s attention despite the efforts of Futter’s successor, anthropologist Judith Shapiro, who was supposedly well-liked by the faculty, but who made few waves beyond Barnard’s walls.
Spar comes from the co-ed world, a seemingly plain credential but one that will give her an enormous advantage at Barnard. She was a professor and associate dean at Harvard Business School, and knows how to compete in one of the toughest academic environments around. Writer Anna Quindlen and the Barnard board were smart to reach beyond the universe of single-sex schools and into a heavily male institution for their next pick. Spar thrived at Harvard, and knows how to place Barnard not alongside its women-only counterparts, but also up against the co-ed giants that now dwarf it.
Speaking with the Daily Beast, Spar acknowledge that brightening up Barnard’s image is her first task, a problem right out of Marketing 101.
“My job is to take this gem”—the small-school environment and stellar liberal arts education that Barnard offers—“and polish it and present it more strongly to the outside world,” Spar said from her comfortable but modest office. “At Harvard, the name is so huge it sort of overwhelms everything else,” she continued. “Barnard is a fabulous place that isn’t as well-known, and I think it deserves to be.”
In the old days, Barnard was well-known. Among the Seven Sisters schools, it was considered the most academic (along with Radcliffe), and the least like a finishing school or a place to find a husband. Instead, it was a commuter school populated by middle-class girls, many of them the daughters of immigrants and the first in their families to go to college. (There were also the requisite wealthy girls who simply wanted to stay in New York.) Older graduates describe Barnard as a place where women could be smart “without apologies.” In the series “Mad Men,” Rachel Menken—the tough, smart, Jewish, and (in the first season) unmarried daughter of a department-store owner—attended Barnard. It was the place for burgeoning female leaders to forge new identities.
Today, Barnard struggles to have a calling card beyond its location in New York and its affiliation with Columbia. Perhaps—partly because of Hillary Clinton—Wellesley remains the more prominent of the nations women’s colleges: it is ranked fourth on U.S. News and World Report’s list of liberal arts college, after Dartmouth, Williams, and Swarthmore. Barnard is ranked 27th, after both Smith (which is known for being heavily lesbian and political active) and the mousier, more staid Bryn Mawr.
At times, Barnard (or at least its admissions office) has been so ambivalent about what image to project that it has seriously misstepped. In 1998, students lodged a complaint after they discovered that a promotional brochure for the school noted that graduates of single-sex colleges were more likely to get married and have children than graduates of co-ed schools—a complete repudiation of Barnard’s traditional “no apologies” approach to women’s education.
So, which way forward?
Debora Spar represents a brilliant choice. She is the first Barnard president to have come of age after the feminist revolution, giving her the easy confidence—not stridency—of someone who grew up feeling that all doors were open to her. She is, as one member of the search committee noted, exactly the kind of woman that most Barnard students will aspire to be. “I mean, forget about all the credentials and all the books she’s written,” a hedge-fund manager, Jolyne Caruso, said. “She’s a mother of three children; one of them is adopted. She’s got the work/life balance down pat. She’s in good physical shape, she runs, she’s pretty, she’s brilliant. These girls are really going to relate to her.”
She intends to be more than just a role model on campus; she hopes to be a symbol of the smart women Barnard churns out. In an interview with Quindlen in the summer issue of Barnard Magazine, Spar waxed admiringly about deposed Harvard president Larry Summers, who she said was—before his gaffe about women and science—doing “remarkable things to reestablish the role of the college president as a public intellectual.” It’s fair to guess that Spar will take on something of a Summers-like role, but perhaps with a bit more tact.
She is above all interested in women as leaders, or rather, in why (after all this time!) there aren’t more women in visible, high-powered roles. She has spent her career researching why women don’t reach the top levels of business, politics, law, etc., in proportionate numbers to men. As a political scientist, she wrote a no-holds-barred book about the fertility industry and why it is flawed as a “market” and detrimental to women. If she approaches the issues facing Barnard’s image with the same hardheaded, scientific approach, she stands to be a true force.
Another plus: Spar is not media-shy. For her book, “The Baby Business,” she made the rounds of talk shows and news programs, and we should expect her to be a frequent media presence in her new role as well. Almost as soon as she got to town, some of the journalists on Barnard’s board hosted a cocktail party at the Time Life building to show Spar off to New Yorkers like Katie Couric, Nora Ephron, and The New Yorker’s David Remnick.
“It was a meet-and-greet to position us for future coverage,” said one of the organizers, Cyndi Stivers, who is the manager editor of Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com. “It’s just great to improve the visibility of the school.”
If increased visibility is Spar’s number-one job, fundraising is a close second. Barnard’s $200 million endowment is puny, not only compared to Columbia’s ($7.1 billion), but also to Wellesley’s ($1.67 billion), Smith’s (over $1 billion), and Bryn Mawr’s ($685 million). The reasons may include Barnard’s traditionally middle-class population, as well as the fact that Barnard graduates tend to stay in New York, where many different causes and institutions compete for their philanthropy.
Spar notes that Harvard Business School’s fundraising operation has been very effective in playing off its alumni’s competitive instincts—their desire to demonstrate their success through the volume of their gifts. She notes that women don’t give in quite the same way: they are more motivated by a desire to support an institution that is doing something good than a need to prove their financial prowess. She thinks that by catering its pitch to women’s motivations (read: appealing to their feminine desire to nurture and develop), Barnard can increase its “get.” Spar may be the first president of a woman’s college to treat its alumni like women—and it’s a risk, like Spar’s appointment, that just may work.