DSpar Talks Elephants and (Not) Taking the Simple Road
Written by Bwog Staff
In anticipation of the six month anniversary of Obamanard and tonight’s University Unity Forum, Bwog thought you all might appreciate more clarity on the ever enigmatic relationship between Columbia and Barnard. Since the idea of tonight’s forum is to provide a space for students’ perspectives, Bwog went straight to the endlessly economic Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, to get the facts on the behind-the-scenes relationship. Bwog’s Behind-the-Scenes B-Chief Renée Kraiem reports from behind-the-scenes of Milbank 109.
Maybe women can’t, but Barnard and Columbia can do it all, according to DSpar—with a little help from their respective friends across the street. “It is a singular relationship, not like anything else,” says DSpar, but apparently one that other colleges across the country, like the Five Colleges, are looking to replicate. “It’s understandably complicated,” said DSpar, “but once you understand how it works, it’s remarkably straightforward” and symbiotic. Straightforward it may be for administrators, but for students–not so much.
On a technical level, DSpar presents the relationship as a clear and stable one; “technically, Barnard is a wholly separate legal entity,” she said. Administrations are “wholly separate.” explained Chief Operating Officer Greg Brown, “but [we] know where each other sits. They know where I am, and I know where they are, and there’s no hesitation to reach out.” DSpar characterized the relationship as a “historic” one of 125 years of “marriages across the street, families across the street, and faculty relationships” across the street. Pieces of it are governed by an intercorporate agreement that dates back to 1900, but are now based mostly on a renegotiated version from 1983, when Barnard decided to remain independent despite Columbia College’s decision to admit women. The contract is based on a 15 year cycle, but amended about every 10, according to COO Brown. “The last time we negotiated with Columbia,” said Brown, “it was just about money. Academic quality issues have reached a parity point,” he said, “and how much to pay for is what tends to be” all that’s discussed during negotiations. The agreement is mutually beneficial, he says, and “a good academic deal” that “just feels organic;” where other schools have resource constraint issues trying to everything by themselves, “for Columbia and Barnard, we don’t.”
The major areas of overlap, then, and the origin of contention, would be the students. The student experience, Spar said, is much more of a “seamless community than it seems for us. Students are deeply intertwined.” If student concerns aren’t based on administrative strife, or tension, then how do administrators view student concerns? The devil is in the details, says DSpar, which abound between Amsterdam and Claremont. “It’s almost like a proverbial elephant being touched by all the blind men,” Spar said. “It really depends what part you’re looking at. My perception is that what matters most to the students is the social aspect,” and “my sense is that the academic pieces work just fine. It’s kind of what happens when you guys are after hours.”
And the way we are after hours, DSpar would say, is based on how we were after hours before we got to Morningside Heights. “The process that we put high school kids though is insane,” said Spar, noting that when kids have spent two years obsessing about where they’re going to college, it becomes almost “tribal — as soon as they get to that place, they have to say it’s the best place in the world.” That kind of sibling rivalry is natural, Spar added, but “at Williams and Amherst, they’re not having breakfast together every day.” “We will always have a smaller number of applications,” said Spar, and therefore a lower admissions rate. “When I compare Barnard to our competitive schools, Columbia isn’t one of them. It’s just not an appropriate comparison,” in part because “Barnard is a much more specific place than Columbia is…than most colleges in the country are.”
So what to do about what Spar calls a “vestigial post high-school tick?” What has been done? Not much, apparently. A report from Spec’s archives reveals that, when asked the same question in 2008, SGA “proposed distributing a pamphlet explaining the affiliation to recently admitted Barnard students.” “I think we do a pretty good job,” said Spar, of articulating the relationship between the two schools to prospective students, but that “the more that Columbia students understand what’s going on at Barnard, the better.”
The question remains, though, that if the tension and confusion around the relationship is a sentiment perpetuated by current students, what should the next step be? “This should be an element of diversity that people are comfortable with,” said Spar, “as the schools are different” and the “students are deeply intertwined.” Since, according to Spar, this ambition is the foundation for “a lot of communication between our student facing offices,” like Dean of Barnard College, Avis Hinkson, and Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia Kevin Shollenberger, let’s hope that their relationship isn’t one of the “complicated issues that are presented as really simple” that DSpar was talking, ever-eloquently, about.