COLLEGE PRESIDENTS’ SERIES
President Debora Spar, Barnard College
As conventional as it first sounds, when Debora Spar mentions “getting to know students” as the most memorable aspect of her first year as president of Barnard College, she immediately follows with an explanation and examples that prove her gifts for fast, thoughtful analysis and extraordinary personal charm. Barnard students are “phenomenal,” she says, more than she had anticipated before coming on board. By choosing to go to college in Manhattan, to live in the city, they’ve made a big decision, and by selecting a women’s college, they’ve signaled their determination to succeed as women in a competitive world that still favors men as CEOs. But, the president smiles, Barnard graduates have fared better than most in the economic downturn, exuding self-confidence and landing jobs on Wall Street. She credits the work of a new director of career services, Robert Earl, and the excitement he’s also bred among alums.
Getting to know students begins for President Spar in the freshman year and takes various forms—widely disseminated announcements of monthly office hours, special seminars and invitations to groups as well as individuals. Might she be perceived as “stalking” some of the students who regularly stop by, she playfully wonders. The hardest part of being a CEO, she points out, is getting information: what areas of college life evoke complaints, what raves? She was surprised, she says, that no one last year criticized faculty, but she does keep a list of concerns to see if there are patterns in what students mention, and she also keeps a list of areas students don’t bring up—a shrewd move.
Among the more innovative features of exchanges with students is President Spar’s invitations to groups, not just individuals—the black student association, “eco reps,” and women working in the college’s rape prevention program and wellness center. She has also instituted biannual town hall meetings and less formal fireside chats, sponsored by student government. These discussions, on broad and significant topics, last year included the election and global strategies. For sure, when “Diana,” the new student center undergoing construction, opens, such activities will grow. Students will finally have “hang out” space, not to mention an enhanced dining facility, computer lounge and reading areas. And a new theater dedicated to student productions.
If what the president has been able to institute in just one year were not already an embarrassment of riches, the “re-launching” of the Barnard Leadership Initiative must constitute a major academic achievement. The Athena Center for Leadership Studies, as the Initiative will now be known, will be a bigger, more diverse and more exciting “three-pronged” program. With a new director, Kitty Kolbert, who will advance curricular and career-preparation programs, the Center will promote leadership qualities from the perspective of the liberal arts—new courses, on the psychology of women’s brains, for example, and practicum workshops that reflect new trends on the desirability of offering courses in public speaking skills and in finance; a mandatory internship between junior and senior year, with close mentoring and provision for a stipend; and a post-internship senior seminar taught by the director.
Especially important to President Spar is to get beyond data: if research shows that women tend to have a tougher time then men dealing with failure—if they blame themselves rather than external forces—what can be offered to counter such effects? “What irony, that American women do not fare as well professionally as women in Rwanda or South Africa, countries where women not only enjoy much greater presence in government but where ethnic differences and racial diversity seem to be dealt with more effectively than in this country.” Dr. Debora Spar has written extensively on African political economy and executive education in Africa, and was a leading figure when she was at Harvard in “Making Markets Work,” a joint program between Harvard Business School and the University of Pretoria Gordon Institute of Business Education.
“Let’s get beyond polemics,” she urges, continue research on hormonal components and societal influence, and make a difference—not just in this country, but abroad. Global outreach is a major part of the president’s upcoming plans. These include an expansion of international conferences and symposia (last year’s offerings centered on China, this year’s will focus on the Middle East). New semester or year-long partnerships with schools outside the United States have also been instituted. Even if 50 percent of Barnard students don’t go abroad, they still reap the benefits of meeting student-visitors from other countries.
The author of six books and numerous studies but best known perhaps for her pioneering investigation, “The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception,” on “the economy of alternative fertility,” President Debora Spar seems perfectly suited to be at the helm of one of the nation’s leading women’s colleges.#