It has been a busy month. Late in February, only several weeks after Barnard had enthusiastically announced Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, as our commencement speaker, the College received an unexpected call. It was the White House, and they wanted to know if President Obama could speak at our commencement. What does one say? Yes. Of course. We would be delighted. We would be overjoyed, actually, dancing down the halls on a campus positively bursting with pride.
Soon after word spread, however, our campus was hit by an outbreak of mudslinging, a nasty online outpouring of gloating, rivalry, and insult. Most of the postings were actually quite benign. Many expressed little more than glee, the sheer joy in hearing that the President of the United States would soon be returning to Morningside Heights.
Yet, as many observers -- both on campus and off -- have noted, there was also a sharply misogynistic strain that ran through some of the comments; mean, virulent attacks, spurred on by the anonymous nature of online commentary, that veered in a few instances toward the salacious and obscene.
Thankfully, these attacks have now subsided, diluted by both the natural forces of attention entropy and a sharp, well-reasoned counterattack by outraged students on both sides of Broadway, who insisted that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community. The echoes of this incident continue to reverberate, however, as well they should.
One theme of this refrain relates to the ongoing rivalry between Barnard and Columbia College or, more precisely, to the sparring that occasionally erupts between students from the four undergraduate colleges, each of which is different, and differently linked to the complex constellation of Columbia. I must confess that I still find these fights puzzling. Because Barnard is distinctly not GS and SEAS is not Columbia College. Instead, each of the colleges is a highly distinctive entity, marked by its own intellectual culture and educational mission. I never encourage a high school student to apply to both Barnard and Columbia. Instead, I encourage her to think about what she wants: a small independent liberal arts college or one located within a large research university? The shared Great Books curriculum of the Core or the wide ranging distribution requirements of the Nine Ways of Knowing? None of the four colleges' models is inherently better or worse -- but they are explicitly different and should be celebrated as such. Together, they make the Columbia campus, on all sides of Broadway, a diverse and glorious jumble of people and ideas; an agglomeration truly unique in the world of higher education.
The second theme is darker, and relates to the misogyny that emerged in some of the viler online postings. The actual words deployed in the worst of these were shocking and disturbing. Even more shocking and disturbing, though, was that they were sprung in 2012 -- roughly 50 years after the sexual and feminist revolutions; 40 years after the passage of the ERA; 40 years after the battle for women's rights ripped across this very same campus. As women, and as society, we have made massive strides since the tumultuous days of the 1960s, and certainly since the 1880s, when Barnard and the other Seven Sisters were created to provide young women with the educational opportunities otherwise denied them. Yet lurking still below the surface of women's advancement is a sexism that refuses to die, a sexism that rears its frightful head in anonymous online commentary and Congressional testimony on contraception; on hate radio and in electoral contests that still focus on female candidates' looks rather than their achievements. What transpired during this pre-Obama fracas should raise alarms -- at Barnard and Columbia, among women and men -- about the sexism that still exists in our society and about our shared responsibility to root it out. I hope that President Obama will address the issue of sexism when he comes to campus. And, more important, I hope that we continue these vital conversations among ourselves. Contemporary sexism is often a more subtle attack, veiled as a rebuke to some kinds of women or some forms of behavior. But attacks based on sex remain as cruel in their impact as they've ever been, and equally devastating in their longer-term effects. Fighting back against them is not a crusade owned solely by women's colleges. It is a fight we all share, and a goal we cannot afford to neglect.