Barnard’s Convocation of the 2017-2018 school year took place yesterday afternoon, in Riverside Church. Normally Bwog wouldn’t cover this annual ceremony, but this year, it was touted particularly highly as the first time President Sian Beilock would address the student body, so we sent new writer Ramisa Murshed, BC ‘21, to the event, along with senior staffer Betsy Ladyzhets, BC ‘19. The ceremony was also contextually charged this year by a simultaneous rally outside Barnard’s gates.
At 4:30 pm on Tuesday afternoon, Barnard students, administration, faculty, and staff gathered at Riverside Church for Convocation. Although many Barnard students tend to forgo attending Convocation, this year’s event was expected to have a larger turnout than it did since, as emphasized throughout the ceremony, it was Barnard’s first ceremony with new President Sian Beilock. In fact, all Barnard classes in the 4 to 6 pm time frame were cancelled yesterday, in order to encourage students and faculty to attend. But the church was far from packed – the student section was filled with empty seats. And the ceremony that followed, while in many ways inspiring, rang hollow when we considered the context of the speeches we heard.
Biology professor Jonathan Snow (last year’s Emily Gregory Award Recipient) opened the ceremony by welcoming the SGA, faculty, Board of Trustees, senior leadership, President of the Alumnae Association, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Chair of the Board of Trustees, the keynote speaker, and finally, the President, whose arrival elicited a great amount of cheering and clapping from the audience. However, the alumnae class officers, who marched immediately afterward, received an even greater amount of applause.
Jolyne Caruso-FitzGerald BC ’81, Chair of the Board of Trustees, then greeted the members of the audience, calling this academic year the beginning for both the class of 2021 and President Beilock. She was followed by Jyoti Menon BC ’01, President of the Alumnae Association, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Linda Bell welcomed students while also welcoming President Beilock. Her remarks, similarly to those of the speakers who preceded her, followed the overarching theme of changing the world and growing and changing at Barnard. Next, Angela Beam BC ’18, SGA President, took the podium to discuss the student side of change at Barnard – but not before taking the time to once again welcome President Beilock, whom Beam called “our fearless leader.” Beam described specific instances of students facilitating change, beginning with Divest Barnard, and then detailing Barnard’s efforts to improve food and security through meal plans, the addition of guest swipes, and partnering with the Columbia Food Bank.
A recitation of the honor code and a short (but beautiful) performance from Bacchante later, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived: President Beilock’s remarks. She began her speech acknowledging alumnae, faculty, administration, staff, and most importantly, students. Beilock seemed extremely enthusiastic about taking on her new role, elevating that excitement after putting her position into historical context. She listed several important speakers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Kofi Annan, and Cesar Chavez, who had delivered speeches at the very same podium in Riverside Church at which she was currently standing. President Beilock’s historical references served one purpose: to connect this Convocation and academic year at Barnard to history. “We are a part of history larger and greater than ourselves,” she said.
Beilock also discussed her own college experience, describing a chemistry midterm that she bombed as a first-year: in a class of over 400 students, she received the lowest grade. After that midterm, she found a study group who challenged her to practice problems in a competitive environment, and that experience of working under pressure helped her perform much better on the final. She “transcended [her] limits,” and encouraged Barnard students to do the same during their time here.
Throughout Beilock’s speech, she referred to Barnard students as people who “can really count for something,” making many subtle—and a few less subtle—references to the current sociopolitical climate, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge recent events in Charlottesville, Trump’s move to end DACA, or the Barnard Contingent Faculty Union’s counter-convocation rally occurring outside the Barnard gates at that very moment. Overall, however, President Beilock seemed genuinely excited to work with Barnard students, especially in the liberal arts: “I am a scientist, but I wouldn’t be a good one without the liberal arts education I received,” she said.
“Congratulations President Beilock, and congratulations Barnard for choosing her,” were the first words of keynote speaker Dr. Carol Dweck, BC ’67, immediately after President Beilock introduced her. Beilock referred to Dr. Dweck as a source of personal inspiration, as the two women are researchers in the same field of stress and motivation, and it seemed clear that they know each other well.
Similarly to President Beilock, Dr. Dweck introduced a historical perspective. In 1963, Dr. Dweck entered Barnard: the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and Bob Dylan released his first album singing songs of freedom and equality. Dr. Dweck also mentioned, however, that it was a time of conflict and turmoil—there was the Vietnam War, continued racial tension and violence, the assassination of JFK—and she was deeply affected by it.
“I was not yet part of that world,” Dr. Dweck said. “I didn’t have passions, or well-formed opinions… Barnard changed that.”
She spoke about the value of her Barnard education, both in terms of knowledge and skills, then transitioned into explaining her work, which she called “a program of research about human potential and how to maximize it for everyone.” Dr. Dweck explained the “growth mindset”, a worldview that all people are capable of developing and increasing their intelligence through time, hard work, and steps outside of their comfort zone; students with this mindset grow and achieve more in challenging situations, and are more skillful at resolving conflict. Like President Beilock, she encouraged Barnard students to be bold and “do something outrageously growth mindset”.
Dr. Dweck concluded her speech by asserting that “the world needs [Barnard] just as badly as it did in 1963, maybe even more.” Her words were motivational in the moment, but it was difficult to feel quite as proud of Barnard after the ceremony, when we checked our phones to see quotes and pictures from the “counter-convocation” rally. Statements praising Barnard’s faculty for their brilliance and scholarship rang hollow, when we knew that former faculty members a few blocks away were accusing Barnard of violating its recently minted contract with BCF-UAW.
“This is the curb. This is the curb where Barnard College kicks its faculty after 20 years of four courses per year and underpayment,” former professor Georgette Fleischer said at the rally.
This experience – sitting in the bold and beautiful Riverside Church listening to practiced speeches while students and professors gathered at the gates – epitomizes the two faces of Barnard. There is the public face, which extolls the virtues of a liberal arts education and touts the seemingly infinite resources that the College can offer its students. And there is the private face, which carefully squeezes students into acceptable opinions and dismisses its professors without adequate justification. Both of these faces can exist together, even as one seems completely at odds with the other. This year’s convocation brought those faces into direct conflict for the first time this semester – but we’re certain that it won’t be the last time.
Image via our very own Betsy