Judith Shapiro, President, Barnard College
Career Choice: At the time I was a student, an academic career seemed the obvious option. The fact that I did not think about the other professions might mean that it was not something women generally did at that time, or might reflect the fact that my friends and I were of the bohemian-intellectual variety. There is also the fact that my mother was a teacher; indeed, I played at being a teacher from a very early age. Within academia, the fact that I majored in history and then moved into anthropology, and from there to being a provost and then a college president reflects the fact that I am, by inclination, not a specialist, but someone with a very broad range of interests. Each step in my career has widened the focus. Using the familiar metaphor of the laser vs. the searchlight, I am of the searchlight persuasion.
Challenges: I have resolved some challenges by getting the kind of help I needed. I have resolved others by learning to accept failure. An example of the first was a very painful and protracted strike on the part of one of our two major labor unions at Barnard in the second year of my presidency; the solution was to find the right person to lead the negotiations. An example of the second was when I was unable to complete a major research project during my senior year at college; at some point, I just had to let go. In general, it is important to turn the focus from one’s own feelings of anxiety, disappointment, guilt, etc. to a focus on how to fix things, make them better.
Accomplishments: My accomplishments are not things that I can take sole credit for, so let us call them accomplishments of which I am proud to have played a part in: the current strength of the Barnard community, which involves not only the excellence of each constituent part (faculty, students, administrators, trustees, etc.), but the close, collegial, and respectful ties among them; the fact that the relationship between Barnard and Columbia is better than it has ever been in the history of these institutions. I am also proud of the fact that I keep a lot of terrific, hard-working people happy and amused.
Turning Point: Deciding to try my hand at administration, which I could do in a risk-free way by becoming Acting Dean of the Undergraduate College at Bryn Mawr, having already become a senior, tenured member of the faculty. From there, I moved on to become the College’s first provost and then the president of Barnard, which has been far and away the most deeply rewarding period of my entire working life.
Mentors: Leaving aside my mother, still going strong at 94, my most significant mentor has been Mary Patterson McPherson, who was president of Bryn Mawr during the time I made my transition into administration and recruited me into that line of work. Her wisdom, generosity, dedication, thoughtfulness, sense of humor, and infinite patience have been a continuing inspiration to me and a tempering influence on certain aspects of my own character.
Advice: I would remind them that they will probably live to be 100 and that there is thus time for them to slow down, to do one thing at a time, to make the kinds of mistakes that they will surely learn from; that they should be active citizens, read newspapers, and listen to public radio; and that they should get off their cell phones long enough to experience the life that is actually going on around them. And I would add that I wish them all the best. Truly, the young people I have gotten to know at Barnard are so very wonderful. #