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Fireside Chat: Willing To Be Inspired

Barnard's fearless leader

Barnard President Debora Spar held her latest fireside chat last night, and Zach Kagan was there to drink in the excitement. DSpar verily sparkled! Spar, although set apart from her audience in the middle of an arc of empty seats, conducted the chat more or less as a community conversation. The evening was focused on the identity of the Barnard student: as the slogan goes “Strong, Beautiful Women”.

Spar was full of praise for her audience, relating that a colleague of hers described Barnard students as “Willing to be inspired.” Perhaps that would be a better tagline for brochures, because several students expressed stress at trying to live up to the Barnard image. Between classes, clubs, and social events, students spoke about having a hard time finding, well, time. Some students felt that the mantra of being a strong, independent woman is creating too much of a competitive atmosphere at Barnard, at a detriment to the college’s “sense of community.” Read the full report after the jump!

DSpar acknowledged that these worries are common to all prestigious colleges, but conceded that Barnard’s independent identity may exacerbate the problem. Spar warned about the danger of doing too much. “Women feel like they need to constantly be spinning all the plates,” Spar quipped, “while men only spin two, and if one drops they just shrug and keep spinning the other.” She made it clear that Barnard was taking steps to cultivate a nurturing student community. Recently there has been a resurgence of old traditions at Barnard, starting with “Winter Fest” and continuing on with the reinstatement of Barnard’s Greek Games (which Spar previously claimed was impossible—“they’re too 1920s.”) These remedies were not considered satisfactory. “Why can’t we have events like screaming out our majors like they do across the street?” asked one Barnard student. “When I see my departmental advisor twice a semester, why don’t they ask if I am sleeping alright or finding time to relax, in addition to making sure I am keeping up with my requirements?” asked another. Spar reminded them that counseling services are available, and one student even praised Bwog’s own post on the subject.

Mid-conversation about Barnard’s identity and the emotional health of its student body, arose another serious issue, the school budget. Things are tight. The Barnard endowment was evaluated at only $174 million in 2009, paltry compared to Wellesley’s $1,266 million and Columbia’s $6.5 billion. “Barnard is a school that can do a lot with very little,” said Spar. But the fact is only 30% of Barnard’s alumnae actually give back to the college, while the rate at Wellesley is twice that. Spar chalks this up as another side effect of Barnard’s independent identity. This does little to solve the problem; tuition fees only pay for three-fourths of the average cost of a Barnard education. This puts Barnard in a very difficult situation when it comes to admissions. Over half of Barnard students are paying full price for their education, but another chunk receives financial aid. There is concern that a “donut hole” may appear for middle class students who do not qualify for hefty financial aid. Currently, Spar noted that the admissions data doesn’t suggest this has occurred.

There was real energy behind the idea of being a strong, ambitious Barnard Woman. There was also a little bit of pessimism. One student disparaged Barnard’s image as presented in the 2009 romantic comedy “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” (in one scene Matthew McConaughey’s personal assistant describes a lesbian experience by saying “That was just one time in college. I went to Barnard. I had no choice.”) This one time at college, however, was brought promptly to a close. As 7 o’clock loomed, Spar announced that she had a prior engagement and had to dash. Before she left, Bwog asked Spar about Barnard’s recent move away from the LionShare jobs posting service, but she had no comment.

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  • Nathan says:

    @Nathan As I recall the students that I met there, the “Yard” provided little long term loyalty among its alumni, so the dearth of donations is no surprise. It might serve their needs better were they to turn the campus into a teenage Theme Park to raise additional funds, sort of a New York City Culture and Decadence Club.

  • dear bwog says:

    @dear bwog im really tired, i dont want to study anymore. i just want to go to my parents house, lie on the couch and have my mom make me homemade…i dunno, waffles or something

  • WTF says:

    @WTF “Women feel like they need to constantly be spinning all the plates while men only spin two, and if one drops they just shrug and keep spinning the other”

    That’s such BS and utterly sexist! I’m a male student and I’m spinning a million plates and I have yet to drop one, bitch!

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous hahahah I love the bitch at the end, there.

      makes me think of Black Swan- “I’M THE SWAN QUEEN, BITCH!”

      ..I really need a drink.

    2. read carefully says:

      @read carefully She wasn’t saying that men can’t keep “all their plates spinning” so to speak, she was just explaining the generalization (agreed, a sexist comment) that IF a man does fail, he might feel like less of a failure than a woman, as women tend to try to be perfectionists more so than men.

      1. in defense of strong, beautiful men says:

        @in defense of strong, beautiful men he didn’t think she was saying that men can’t handle their plates. he was annoyed by her seeming to imply that they only try to spin to spin two. I think DSpar’s comment was inappropriate–if a pre-co-ed Columbia president had said something like that about girls, we’d all be offended.

        and why would guys be less affected by failure than perfectionist girls are? aren’t they trying to live up to being manly and capable?

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Yay strong, beautiful men! And yay brilliant, astute women!

        2. It's not sexist, its proven. says:

          @It's not sexist, its proven. Numerous replicated studies have shown that when men fail, they attribute their failure to external factors: the teacher, the classroom, the difficulty of an exam. When females fail, they attribute their failures to internal cues: intelligence, motivation, etc. Likewise, when men succeed thy believe it is because of internal factors: “I’m a genius”, while females succeed because of external factors: “I got lucky”.

          While every single person of the male or female gender does NOT have the same attribution style, on the whole, different sexes react differently to failure.

          This is what President Spar was trying to say about women feeling the need to spin all the plates. A woman feels the need to prove to herself and to society (largely because of pervasive stereotypes and social constructions) that she is just as capable as man of anything and everything. If she fails, she’ll attribute her failure to inability (when this is obviously not the case) and have a harder time recuperating from “dropping” the plate. On the contrary, a man, because of the way he’s taught by society to regard failures, will not find it as difficult.

          In essence, Pres. Spar is saying that women (on the whole) need to learn to work against the cognitions, stereotypes and processes that make them internalize criticism, lower their self-esteem and keep them from trying (again).

          1. back again for my beautiful men says:

            @back again for my beautiful men it wasn’t (necessarily) sexist for her to suggest that women and men justify their failures in different ways (although-if-gender-is-socially-constructed-then-maybe-she’s-reinforcing-femenine-expectations-OHHhh). it’s the tone, as if men are careless buffoons immune to the trials of failure. and who only try to spin two plates.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “There is concern that a “donut hole” may appear for middle class students who do not qualify for hefty financial aid. Currently, Spar noted that the admissions data doesn’t suggest this has occurred.”

    Maybe she should start collecting anecdotal evidence, because I’m pretty sure a lot of us at Barnard (and Columbia) got screwed over by financial aid after the recession.

    1. One of those Middle Class students says:

      @One of those Middle Class students the donut whole exists.

  • one can do a lot with very little says:

    @one can do a lot with very little Yeah, that’s how I got in.

    1. one can do a lot with very little says:

      @one can do a lot with very little one WHO* can do a lot with very little

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “…conceded that Barnard’s independent identity may exasperate the problem.”

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous obviously the students are complaining, barnard is not a real women’s college. just merge it with columbia and be done with it.

  • correction says:

    @correction The comparison of endowments and alumnae giving was made to Wellesley, not Wesleyan.

    1. Claire says:

      @Claire That makes more sense. Corrected!

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