What's the relevance of Barnard nowadays?

What’s the relevance of Barnard nowadays?

In another event regarding the identity of Barnard, a panel organized by Sulz and Hewitt RAs discusses the relevance of women’s colleges today. Staff writer Nikki Shaner-Bradford reports on what reasons, exactly, there are for Barnard to continue to exist—if there are any reasons at all.

One facet of going to Barnard is the prevalent feeling that Barnard students must constantly validate their college’s identity—be it within the Columbia University community or the world as a whole. Last night, thanks to the work of Hewitt and Sulz RAs, a conversational panel on “Why a Women’s College in 2016?” was organized, including both Barnard students and faculty to discuss and evaluate these questions.

The panel consisted of  Lauren Malotra-Gaudet (BC ’15 grad), Claire Liebmann (BC ’18), Professor Robert McCaughey, and Professor Pamela Cobrin. Each panelist took turns answering prepared questions by Barnard RAs, offering their insight into the identity and necessity of Barnard as a women’s college.

The first point addressed was the ways in which the existence of a women’s college affects both teaching and learning within the classroom. The panel began by noting, in agreement, the way having a female dominated learning environment offers a voice to students who might otherwise feel uncomfortable or unwelcome participating in discussion. Gender politics within co-ed classes can often deter women from being as vocal when faced with their male peers. By having many female professors and peers, students of women’s colleges are encouraged to share their ideas and opinions, free from the typically louder male voice and alleged threat of mansplaining. Academia is a male dominated field, and both Malotra-Gaudet and Liebmann noted that their experience of having many female professors was both inspiring and empowering. Offering the educator’s perspective, Professor Cobrin commented that teaching at Barnard was her most reciprocal learning environment. She felt she was gaining invaluable knowledge and insights from being in a female-dominated classroom.

Liebmann noted that, while in high school, she felt the need “to prove myself” in her co-ed classes (to be the articulate woman, or the feminist woman). In her Barnard classes, she did not feel confined to these roles. This was a sentiment echoed by the audience. Often women in coeducational environments feel pressure to maintain a specific identity in order to stay relevant and heard within conversation. Instead, Liebmann commented, being at a women’s college allows her to simply “be a scholar.”

Another topic the moderators brought up was the new admissions policy, that now allows any students living and identifying as women to apply to Barnard College. All parties on the panel voiced their agreement. One concern, raised by Malotra-Gaudet (former president of Q), was where this leaves students at Barnard who are genderqueer, or those who present as more masculine, and therefore might be deterred from applying to Barnard because of this specific language.

The conversation soon moved to the Barnard-Columbia relationship, specifically to the infamous 2013 op-ed in the Columbia Spectator that questioned the decision against merging. All panel participants disagreed vehemently with the suggestion that Barnard be fully subsumed by Columbia. Why? Professor Cobrin focussed on the way Barnard is shaped by it’s odd personal autonomy. She noted that, having spent time on the Columbia Senate, every unit of the Columbia University community functions differently. While they are all interdependent, Barnard’s partial autonomy allows it the unique identity it maintains today.

The other panelists briefly touched upon the issue of endowment, the main argument for merging and the focus of the Spec op-ed. Malotra-Gaudet noted that the intention of the author (a CC student) was seemingly not to absorb Barnard into the university, but rather to have it “be eaten by Columbia College.” Additionally, they commented that an issue with Barnard’s endowment is the fact that many Barnard graduates ultimately donate to Columbia University, assuming some of that money will end up at Barnard. In reality, both institutions’ endowments are financially separate.

Endowment was later brought up again while evaluating the fate of women’s colleges in general. Professor McCaughey, who teaches a “Making Barnard History” seminar, made the point that within the conversation of women’s colleges there are two issues: financial stability and the corporatization of a feminist education. He noted that women’s colleges today require solid endowment to remain afloat. He also claimed that there was a difference between the women’s colleges in existence today. While institutions like Smith and Wellsley, with high endowment, could continue to eat away at their funds while applications declined, many others —as evidenced by the merging or closing of many women’s colleges—could not.

However, he went on to mention that, in the case of Barnard, the situation is unique but not replicable. Barnard College continues to thrive because it does not require the kind of endowment necessary to the existence of other women’s colleges; it benefits from being connected to a larger institution, and it exists within (arguably) the most successful city in the country. “Places like Barnard are pretty much on their own to assert their own identity,” said McCaughey.

Despite these financial concerns, when the moderators asked “Will a women’s college ever be irrelevant?” the panel’s consensus was definitively no. Cobrin noted that since she began working at Barnard, she was increasingly aware of the argument that “you’re segregating women by only educating them with women.” She joked that she was lately feeling more angry than amused by this. “There is no replication for what happens here,” she said, “Barnard students are better prepared for the world than anyone else.” Despite accusations that women’s colleges might foster a sheltered world view, Cobrin found that  her students and colleagues at Barnard were self-critical, societally aware, and challenging to ideas of inclusivity more so than those at other institutions. Because women’s colleges were founded with the intention to educate a marginalized group, she noted, discussion were always reflective of diverse opinions and rife with respectful critique—even to a greater degree than her previous institutions of employment.

Liebmann added, “As long as there is someone questioning the merits of where I’m getting my degree, Barnard is relevant.”

Note: A previous version of this article listed Jessica Reich as a panelist instead of Claire Liebmann. The error has since been corrected.