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Support for the Essentials: Two Funds Target Faculty Research

If there is one word that rattles young professors, it might be this one: tenure. To attain this status, which offers both job security and prestige, a faculty member must undergo a grueling review process of skills and scholarship. At Barnard, tenure-track instructors often endure an intensely challenging stretch, as they are expected to turn out research in the manner of faculty at a large university like Columbia while frequently carrying the heavy course load typical of professors at smaller colleges like Barnard.

Those are just two aspects of the job. “In addition to teaching and scholarship, faculty must also advise students, run labs, supervise student projects and complete their service commitments on various college committees,” says Angela Haddad, who is associate provost at Barnard.

While many Barnard donors stress students’ needs, two alumnae stand out for their focus on advancing the scholarship of Barnard’s junior faculty: Janet Helman and Carole Rifkind, both graduates of the Class of ’56. The alumnae, who know each other only slightly, are affiliated with two separate funds to support faculty research. Both have generously contributed to Barnard in a variety of roles in the past.

Enhancing the research opportunities of Barnard’s faculty, of course, serves more than just the professional advancement of the recipients involved. It provides “resources and knowledge they can impart to our students,” says Haddad. And, depending on the nature of the research involved, the results can—and do—impact communities around the world.

In the years since the founding of the Richard Rifkind and Carole Lewis Rifkind ’56 Faculty Support Fund, Carole Rifkind has delighted in learning about young Barnard faculty members, who, with this support, pursue research on topics ranging from sex differentiation in the womb, to sixteenth- century Aztec ritual dance, to groundwater contamination in Bangladesh.

Both Rifkind, who has pursued various careers, and her husband, who is chair emeritus at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City, understand the importance of start-up money in research. She also says she enjoys the exposure to “the newest wave of academic research,” and the benefit of “seeing what new scholars are pursuing in their evolving disciplines.”

Rifkind credits Barnard for her personal confidence in the face of change. She’s drawn upon this reservoir several times over the course of her life. An art history major, she switched from teacher to architecture writer after her children grew up. She is the author of several books, including A Field Guide to Contemporary American Architecture, and is active in numerous not-for-profit cultural organizations.

One day in this past decade, however, she announced to her husband, “I want to make a movie.” “In short order,” remembers Rifkind, her husband countered with, ‘I’ll make it with you.’” The couple, with no prior background in filmmaking, have since produced two documentaries: The Venetian Dilemma, in 2005, about the impact of increased tourism on the fabled city’s cultural and civic life; and Naturally Obsessed: the Making of a Scientist, about the experience of doctoral candidates in a molecular biology lab at Columbia University Medical School. Both films aired on public television. “I identify with people pursuing ideas of great interest to them,” says Rifkind. “The thrill of exploring a novel idea is something that both of us share.”

More than a half-century after she first studied nineteenth- century literature with Barry Ulanov, Janet Helman can still reel off the titles from the extensive reading list that accompanied the course, and still grows awed as she recalls the English professor whom she eventually chose as an adviser. With special expertise in Renaissance and twentieth-century literature, Ulanov was the author or editor of more than 50 books on topics ranging from jazz to Christian humanism; “a true polymath,” says Helman. Four years ago, she endowed the Professor Barry Ulanov Fund to honor her professor, and to provide resources for English department faculty.

Helman, who lives in Chicago, knows firsthand the central role that professors play at Barnard. To this day, she tackles new subject areas with a passion she credits in large part to Ulanov’s influence. A volunteer researcher for the University of Chicago, she spends her time mapping out an archaeological site where shards of Iranian pottery have been discovered. Her interest in the region dates back at least 25 years. In 1984 she was asked to chair the volunteer program of museum docents affiliated with the University of Chicago’s renowned Oriental Institute. She completed an eight-week course on the history of the Near East, but still felt she needed to know more. She agreed to take the job only if the Institute permitted her to take one course on the topic each quarter. “I really felt that when I started to work seriously at the Institute I would need to be more of scholar about this,” affirms Helman.

As for the Ulanov fund, she says, “It’s not a private endeavor. If anyone else wants to make a contribution, the fund could use more money.” After all, as Helman points out, “Students come and go, but the faculty [stays].”

- Elisia Brown
Photographs by Dorothy Hong and Joe Wigdahl