This week, SGA Rep Council heard from Barnard Trustees Jyoti Menon BC ‘01 and Marcia Lynn Sells BC ‘81 P ‘23 about the work they do on the Board of Trustees. 

Hello and welcome back to another week with SGA! As always, the meeting began with external announcements from representatives. Tirzah Anderson BC ‘21, SGA President, shared that there will be an event reviewing Barnard’s re-accreditation process on Monday, February 15. More information can be found in next week’s SGA newsletter. Jasmin Torres Piñón announced that applications are open for Fireside Chats with President Beilock, and the theme for the chats this semester is “identities and identity expression on campus”. Avalon Fenster BC ‘24, First-Year Class President, shared the launch of a first-year class website, which will highlight creators in the class and feature an Action Pipeline, connecting students to opportunities for community action. The website can be found in the bio of the first-year class Instagram, @barnard.2024. Solace Mensah-Narh BC ‘21, VP for Equity, wished the council a happy Black History Month and encouraged students to reach out to her via email with any concerns about equity on campus. Flosha Liyana BC ‘21, VP for Campus Life, announced the nomination for the SGA Student Leadership Award, and invited students to nominate an excellent student leader, regardless of class year. Norah Hassan BC ‘21, Senior Class President invited her classmates to attend the Senior Toast on February 17 at 8 pm and to nominate Barnard faculty or staff to speak at this event. 

The two speakers first introduced themselves. Marcia Lynn Sells BC ‘81 P’23 is currently Dean of Students at Harvard Law School but will soon start as the first Chief Diversity Officer at the New York Metropolitan Opera. She told the story of how she found Barnard. Her mother had attended a women’s college, but at the age of 18, Sells was not planning to attend college, as she was dancing professionally with the Dance Theater of Harlem and attending the Professional Children’s School. She applied to Barnard given the advice of a school counselor, who recommended that it was a good school for dancers and that it would allow Sells to still remain in New York City. Sells enrolled in the spring term of her first year, as the Dance Theater of Harlem was on unemployment hiatus. At Barnard, Sells was president of Undergrad, the student government body that preceded SGA. 

Jyoti Menon BC ‘01 is the Director, Head of Digital Wallets, eCommerce, and Bill Pay at Citibank. She has been an alumna trustee for three years and was previously president of the Alumnae Association. Like Sells, she also shared her Barnard story. Her parents did not know the college system well, and when Menon’s guidance counselor heard she was touring Columbia, she encouraged Menon to tour Barnard as well. Menon recounted the day she learned she was accepted to Barnard: she called the admissions office from a payphone at her high school, and was told the good news. (She shared at Monday’s meeting that she was surprised that the office told her this over the phone!) Like Sells, Menon also served as SGA President in her senior year, and both alumnae recalled that their respective student government meetings also took place from 8 to 10 pm on Mondays, as they do now.  As an alumna, she has chaired the Young Alumnae Committee and was previously the president of the Alumnae Association. She also was formerly involved in the mentoring program run by the Office of Career Development, the predecessor to Beyond Barnard. 

Sells and Menon then expanded on how they see their roles as trustees. Menon shared that during her time on SGA as a student, she got to know the Board of Trustees, and some trustees that she knew as a student are still on the Board.  As a part of the Board, she asks herself what can we do for our students, and what is happening on campus or in the world that affects Barnard. She clarified that the Board doesn’t “run the school”, but rather advises President Beilock and her senior team. Trustees work in a variety of fields, including law, finance, education, and medicine, so they bring a variety of expertise. Menon also discussed alumnae relations, and how the Alumnae Association brings alumnae together by region or by interest (for example, the committee “Alma Maters” for alumnae that are mothers). She noted that Zoom meetings have made it easier for alumnae to attend events, which was not always the case with in-person events. 

Sells recalled the trustees she met as a student, including Helene L. Kaplan BC ‘53, who at the time was an early woman partner at an NYC law firm, and Charlotte Hanley Scott BC ‘47, Professor Emerita of Commerce and Education at the University of Virginia, who was Barnard’s first African-American trustee. Sells’ early encounters with the board allowed her to link Barnard’s history through the alumnae, leaders, and funders that she met. (She noted Charles Altschul, who named the Helen Goodhart Altschul BC ’07 building after his mother.)

On the topic of funding, Sells shared that when she was a student, Barnard had no endowment: financial aid funding came directly from the alumnae annual fund. She noted that one of the challenges of running a small college, and specifically one that supports women, is securing funding for what the school needs. She closed her remarks by saying that she seeks to tell the story of why this school is important. Sells noted, “You can’t get the same thing at Columbia.” She said that she understands this firsthand as her son attended Columbia College, and her daughter currently attends Barnard. 

Tirzah remarked on how nice it was to hear the stories of Barnard alumnae, and Menon responded that “you’re a student for four years, but you’re an alumna forever.” Sells emphasized the importance of student and alumnae involvement in a story about adding Barnard housing. At Sells’ time, Barnard was 60% commuter students, as the policy was that students who lived within 50 miles of the school did not receive housing. However, if a student had commuted for their first three years, they would get to live on campus their senior year. When Sells was a senior, the incoming first-year class (Class of 1984) had a much higher yield than expected, which was a boon for Barnard but made it difficult to honor the senior housing policy, resulting in a student sit-in. At the time, Sells was living in a building called College Residence, her home through college and in the years after. She proposed to Dean Barbara Schmitter, President Ellen Futter, Dean Georgie Gatch, and her landlord that Barnard could convert some units in this building to Barnard housing. Thus, the Barnard dorm at 601 W 110th St was born. Sells shared that the story almost came full circle, as her daughter was nearly placed into a 110 suite 40 years later. 

Menon and Sells then took questions from the representatives. Solace asked how they imagine Barnard growing in five years, and in ten years, in their roles as alumnae, trustees, and advisors to the College. Menon responded that she believes the community will get stronger, as the usage of social media and virtual meetings increases. (She shared that in her day, they only had Friendster, and landline phones in their dorm rooms, which made connecting with others very difficult.) She noted that it’s not unusual these days to get on a spur-of-the-moment Zoom call to catch up with friends, and she believes these connections will improve Barnard. Menon also noted the increase in the population of FGLI students and students of color, which she attributed to Barnard’s work in attracting these students. She stressed the importance of a diverse student population, which allows all community members to learn more fully from one another. She concluded with the College’s focus on sciences, particularly in renovating Altschul. Sells expanded upon Menon’s point about a diverse student body; she was the first African-American SGA President, and at the time, many students of color viewed student government as something that only white students participated in. Sells broadened this to the College as a whole, acknowledging that Barnard is historically a predominantly white institution, but it has also been a welcoming space for first-generation immigrant students. (She noted that this is why Barnard lacks the sizable endowment of other Seven Siblings schools, which have received donations from wealthy families over the years.) To this end, she concluded with the importance of financial aid support to allow as many students as possible to attend Barnard. Sells also hopes to increase opportunities for Barnard to be involved with the Harlem community. She did this work at Columbia in her role as both Associate Dean for Outreach & Education in the School of the Arts and Associate Vice President for Program Development and Initiatives in the Office of Government and Community Affairs. She shared the work of the Morningside Area Alliance, a group that was active during her college career which gathered local institutions located around Morningside Park (St. John the Divine, Riverside Church, and St. Hilda’s) to support community projects. This group helped to build the affordable housing complex Morningside Gardens.

Audrey Pettit BC ‘22, Junior Class President, explained that like Sells, she also came to Barnard to dance and study at the same level of rigor. She asked both alumnae how they plan to change Barnard’s mission and language to be more gender-inclusive and expansive. Sells acknowledged the work Barnard has already been doing to include trans women at a historically women’s college, and the importance of adjusting language to facilitate this inclusion. She shared that all institutions are working on this, including Harvard Law School, where she works now, and that this inclusion is a priority for her in her new role at the Met Opera. Menon added that gender inclusivity was a prominent topic of discussion a few years ago, during her first term on the Board of Trustees. She credited the Barnard community, including administrators, students, trustees, and alumnae for educating one another about inclusivity. During her time as President of the Alumnae Association, she focused on using inclusive language in alumnae communication. She acknowledged that everyone in this conversation is learning and growing, especially as they are from different generations and may have more or less knowledge as a result. 

Jasmin Torres Piñón BC ‘22, VP for Communications, shared that many of Barnard’s peer institutions are able to go loan-free. She acknowledged that Barnard has a considerably smaller endowment, but asked the trustees about the feasibility of this. Sells answered that she and Menon wouldn’t be able to answer that, as it regards the day-to-day financing of the school, which is out of their jurisdiction. In order to go loan-free, Barnard would have to increase the endowment significantly (mostly through fundraising) to ensure that all salaries, employee benefits, and other expenses are paid. She expressed certainty that this topic would be under discussion.

Bex Allen BC ‘21, Representative for Academic Affairs, shared how glad they were to hear about the positive experiences of the alumnae. They asked the two guests how they push the administration to respect student voices, for example, when the student body voted in 2018 to divest from Israel, a vote which the administration rejected. Sells responded that Barnard’s community has a range of alumnae and students, who must all be considered in large decisions. She noted that student votes are certainly helpful to inform decisions, but that the Board has to consider the full Barnard community, and what the decision will mean going forward. She shared that she didn’t like hearing this when she was a student, but the administration cannot make a decision simply because of a student petition. Menon added that even if a Board vote doesn’t go the students’ way, the Board will seriously consider the students’ point of view, as part of their commitment to improving Barnard. Sells shared the importance of students’ voice in changing the College’s approach to climate change, and the multi-year conversation about how the College invests around this issue. She acknowledged that these multi-year conversations are frustrating for students, who may not get to see results until after they graduate from Barnard. 

Avalon Fenster BC ‘24, First-Year Class President; Vivian Todd BC ‘21, University Senator, and Chelsea Sinclair BC ‘21, Senior Representative to the Board of Trustees were all on the speakers’ list, but unfortunately, they did not have the time to ask their questions. 

Diana Center via Bwog Archives