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.