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It Never Felt Like Work

Over the past four decades, Dorothy Denburg says there have been times when her friends have been jealous: While they’ve enjoyed fulfilling careers, few have known the pleasure and satisfaction that she experienced as she forged a path of innovation and accomplishment at Barnard. Since announcing her retirement earlier this year, Denburg has received many tributes and been feted at multiple receptions. Students, faculty, colleagues, and President Debora L. Spar noted Denburg’s profound impact as dean of the College, from 1993 to 2010. To honor her contributions and long service, Denburg was named dean of the College emerita as of July 1, 2013.  

Since 2010, Denburg has served as vice president for college relations, greatly increasing alumnae engagement with Barnard. “Students hunger for opportunities to connect to alumnae,” she says. “They absolutely enjoy every opportunity they have—whether it’s social or networking through the career development office. It was definitely clear to me that I needed to find ways of enhancing those opportunities.”

In advance of big events on campus, she’s made a point to invite alumnae who would be particularly interested. For example, for Professor Lee Anne Bell’s “For the Public Good” talk featuring former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, invitations were extended to alumnae educators. A reception at Vagelos Alumnae Center afterward allowed Barnard education students to interact with the alumnae. In addition, during a two-day conference earlier this year honoring the work and career of playwright and poet Ntozake Shange ’70, Denburg ensured that Africana studies alumnae were special guests.

“We’ve also greatly expanded the alumnae mentoring program, which has grown from 50-some mentoring pairs in its first year to 86 mentoring pairs this year,” Denburg says. “That program makes a one-on-one connection between alumnae and students interested in the same general professional area.”

Denburg invited alumnae to take part in Barnard Reach Out, a semiannual event where students do community service projects. She also recognized that alumnae craved connections to the intellectual life of the College, especially those who don’t live in the New York- metropolitan area. “What Barnard alumnae most cherish are the memories of who they were when they were in college—the intellectual growth they experienced and the excitement of what transpired in the classroom. Each time I’ve traveled, I’ve tried to have a faculty member accompany me,” she adds.

Among those who’ve lectured to Barnard clubs in the U.S. and Europe are Anne Higonnet from art history, Yvette Christiansë from English and Africana studies, political science professor Kimberly Marten, political science and urban studies professor Flora Davidson, Joan Snitzer, director of the visual arts program, and Katie Glasner, assistant chair of the dance department. Denburg also created the first-ever Barnard online course with author and professor Mary Gordon ’71.

“Staying close to the College really gives you a connection to the wonderful young women who are our students today,” says Denburg. “It’s not just that our students are smart. Most of them are very passionate about having a positive impact in the world.”

Denburg’s impact on Barnard, and in turn the world, has been a thread throughout her life. After graduating, she began studies toward a doctorate in English at Columbia while working part time for the late Professor Barry Ulanov. In 1971 she decided to take a year’s leave from her studies for personal reasons and accepted a job offer from the late Helen M. McCann, director of admissions from 1952-77. This set her on a career path at the College that has lasted 42 years.

Denburg describes McCann as a wonderful mentor who assigned her work that challenged her professionally and personally. Having never traveled around the U.S. except for one Barnard trip to El Paso, Denburg found herself on the road. “In that year, I traveled for the college to Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia,” she says. “I learned to find my way around and locate high schools without GPS. I learned to stand on my feet and answer questions from people radically different from me all over the country.

“At the end of the year, when I thought I was going back to graduate school, Helen offered me a big promotion that I probably wasn’t ready for. I took it and then she mentored me while I grew into the position.”

Denburg stayed in the admissions office until the end of 1979. Thoroughly enjoying her work, thoughts of graduate school faded away, but McCann insisted she continue her education. Instead of returning to the doctoral program at Columbia, Denburg enrolled in Teachers College where she earned a master’s in student personnel administration with a concentration in counseling, and a doctorate in higher-education administration.

After about a decade serving in various advisor roles, Denburg became dean of the College. In a recent letter to alumnae and the Barnard community, Spar describes Denburg’s 17 years as dean as “legendary.” Among her accomplishments were enhancing student services, strengthening financial aid, and shoring up health and wellness programs. She also taught courses in the first-year seminar program and the Centennial Scholars program. Being in the classroom helped her gain more insight into the dynamics of the College.

Denburg has certainly seen Barnard evolve throughout her four decades here. “The College now is a more vibrant, strong, diverse, stable, and healthy place than it was when I first started working here,” she observes. “It’s been fascinating to see that change take place.”

For the past 20 years, Denburg has also helped students plan for their futures by overseeing the Office of Career Development, which The Princeton Review ranks among the country’s top 10 college career offices. She praises former director Jane Celwyn for facilitating conversations with students about such topics as the challenges that face women in the workplace, and work/life balance. At the suggestion of current career development director Robert Earl, Denburg created a new full-time position for a person whose job it is to bring employers to recruit at Barnard.

Under her watch, the vast internship network has expanded, especially essential at a liberal arts college, since internships give students opportunities to explore a career in a particular field. The career services staff now also runs the Careers and Coffee program—she refers to it as “very Barnard”—where alumnae in varying fields meet with small groups of students. “It’s Barnard women reaching out to younger Barnard women, and younger Barnard women being excited about people who went to the same school as they do,” she says.

While Denburg is officially retiring, she will remain active at the College. For the next year, she will teach the senior seminar for 12 Centennial Scholars and work with them as they develop their projects. She will have office hours for those scholars and her advisees.

In the future, she has an offer to teach a first-year seminar one semester a year, which she hopes to do. And she promises to be a very engaged alumna. “Most of all, I feel profound gratitude,” she says about the past four decades. “I’ve been fortunate to have the career I’ve had. Mostly because of all the people that I’ve had in my life—students, colleagues, faculty, staff, and the alumnae the students have become.”

—By Lois Elfman '80
—Photographs by Dorothy Hong, Sam Stuart, and Rebecca Douglas '10