I did hesitate, never attending Reunion before and wondering what to expect at my 35th, but the class dinner’s open seats beckoned. Selecting one, I chatted with people on either side, sampling my soup as the slide show began. Music pressed the hum of conversation from the room while images of our graduation and vintage campus headlines moved us back in time. Something flashed by me on the screen. I wasn’t sure what I had seen, but paid closer attention. There. On the next slide: Two figures. One faced front, her suit skirt taut over a wide lap, upturned chin under a bell of gleaming light hair; the second in feathery curls, darker-than-midnight, heavily rimmed sunglasses over a bold-print dress. Each sported a large square purse, held firmly against an erect midriff, anchoring family dignity. Beaming at me out of the May ’73 commencement sunshine sat my two grandmothers. I hadn’t remembered their attendance at my graduation, yet with their presence so documented, the Grandmas had come to Reunion. Stunned at how easily I might have missed them by failing to attend the dinner or reaching for a roll, I whispered around my table, “I just saw my Grandmas up there.”
Widowed early in life, each lived alone, dwelling in Cord-Meyer’s apartment forest, north of Queens Boulevard, Jamaica Estates expatriates, but New Yorkers, from birth through the Depression and two World Wars. In fine weather, they would band together across the front seat of a wide-finned Buick and barrel out to Long Island’s north shore, joining us and staying for dinner. The afternoon passed in heated debate over memories of the city and society they had shared, while my mother kept her eye on the oven. Listening from my corner of the kitchen table, they seemed as eternal a pairing as the moon and the tides.
Though neither had been to college, their opinions were sought with an expectation of closure. One had studied drama and been a beauty of stage and silent screen. She could make a party of a thick Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake and, turning business-woman, managed her husband’s properties when he died. The other worked in her family’s jewelry concern before marriage and played piano accompaniment in the silent-movie theaters. She knew which colors and styles one should wear and how a nearly right garment might be altered. While shopping on Fifth Avenue one evening, she declined to leave the store despite the announced early closing. She remained for dinner in the employees’ cafeteria and spent the night of the 1965 East Coast black-out in the mattress department of B. Altman & Co.
The Grandmas ventured to my summer camps, upstate and in New Hampshire, and to my adult home in Minnesota. Barnard pleased them unseen, on familiar territory and well known. My mother, a distinguished student, graduated from Vassar in the ’40s. With passion for books, art, politics, and volunteer work, her strong sense of the Seven Sisters accompanied me through childhood, along with her fierce encouragement of me, her only daughter.
The reunion events swirled on. But the marvel to me was my Grandmas. How good it was to see them again, to think of them, alive and seated in that very courtyard. The thought carried awareness of converging currents: my mother’s zeal in staking out the front row; Barnard, taking and preserving pictures; the Reunion committee, unearthing gems I didn’t suspect the College had; time propelling me across the country and back to campus. Barnard’s archivist sped the pictures to me, identifying them and realizing their value. Identifying value is probably what reunions are about, such value as people discover understanding the past, enhancing their present. I had touched treasure so rare I could hardly speak of it above a whisper, returning from Reunion with the unexpected awe of an archaeologist whose emotion eclipses the bare facts of her find.
-by Linda Masters Barrows '73, illustration by Rachel Ann Lindsay
China may be a communist state, but the Internet is creating an “unofficial democracy” that’s giving ordinary Chinese citizens the freedom to organize, protest, and shape public opinion in ways they never dreamed possible only 20 years ago.
That’s the theory of Goubin Yang’s new book, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Some might argue that the book presents an overly optimistic viewpoint, says Yang, an associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College. But there’s no denying what’s happening in China, Yang says. He has spent 10 years meticulously following online activism and the forces that fuel it in his home country. He monitored and analyzed how people use online bulletin boards. He collected personal stories. He studied how civic organizations raise awareness for their causes. He even ran a personal blog using an anonymous name to understand how people use them. “I want to make the case that Internet activism really matters in very important ways,” he says. “And it’s not an elite phenomenon. It’s very popular and access is quite broad.”
Despite the state’s efforts to control it, Yang says, the Internet has become an agent of radical social change in China. It’s given people the ability to challenge the authority of the country’s political and economic leaders. It’s touched on issues ranging from the environment to consumer rights to sexual orientation. Meanwhile businesses and various nonprofit organizations have encouraged these online activities, too.
And along the way, China’s citizens are rapidly transforming their lives and their society. “It’s not just about technology,” Yang says. “It’s about human stories.”
One of the first online protests that caught Yang’s attention happened in 2000, when a student at Beijing University was murdered. University officials tried to cover it up, but details were posted on an online bulletin board. For days, thousands of students staged protests.
There are many other examples cited in the book: A woman raised awareness of slave labor by posting an anonymous letter online. A young man who was denied a position with the state government because he carries Hepatitis B eventually got one after sharing his plight via the Internet.
The state’s efforts to constrain challenges like these are well known. But those efforts have only led people to find even more creative ways to subvert authority, Yang argues. Over the last 10 years, “it hasn’t been difficult to stay interested in the topic,” Yang says. “The difficult part is trying to tear myself away from it.”
This tug of war between online activists and the Chinese government will no doubt continue for many years. The government will find new ways to control online activism, and citizens will find new ways around them, Yang says. But he hesitates to predict how that battle will shape the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. “The outcomes of this struggle,” Yang says, “are open and uncertain.”
-by Amy Miller
Meg Federico describes her mother’s less-than-golden years in a remembrance that is poignant, funny, and at times, simply heartbreaking. Her mother, Addie (a Wellesley graduate), and her equally aged, but new second husband, Walter (who comes with a grown daughter, Cathy), drink too much and are sinking into dementia. As Federico tries to bring order and compassionate care into a chaotic, even as it is well-to-do, household, she finds herself looking into her past and examining her troubled relationship with her suburban, country-club mother. In this excerpt, Addie, during a lucid interlude, confides her dashed hopes for a career in publishing to her astonished daughter…
I tried to think up lines of conversation that Mom could handle. Today, in the gloom, she was silent, depressed about Cathy and Walter. I’d never heard anything about her honeymoon aboard The Queen Mary, although I’d seen pictures of her wearing a very odd pleated cape, arm in arm with Dad, who was grinning. I brought up what I thought would be a happy reminiscence. “Oh, yes,” Mom said with a sigh. “That’s when your father told me I could not keep my job.”
“You wanted to keep working?” I had never heard this angle before. Mom’s face flooded with regret. “Well, they’d told me I showed promise at Scribner’s, you know. ‘But the children come first,’ he said. Hard words for a new bride to hear.”
I suddenly saw Mom in a new light, one that illuminated the background. She gave up her job and her independence for Dad, whose priorities were his children, his job, and then his wife. So she had marked time. She’d gotten rid of us all as quickly as she could, so she could finally have Dad to herself. But by the time we were all finally out of the house, it was too late. Dad had become an old man, too worn out to be an enthusiastic soul mate for his much younger wife, and perhaps unaware of her longings.
Poor Mom! Then her husband died. So she got a new husband and what happened? She had to compete with Cathy! She has never been good at sharing. “Oh, Mom, how sad for you, and how hard,” I said. And her old face revealed her surprise that this secret pain was understood—ironically, by one of her children.
Mom rolled her head, tilting her eyes toward the window and the fenced yard beyond. “Is that some kind of dog?” she asked me, raising her bony finger to point. “Some kind of deer?” My heart sank. Her sudden trips to Kooky Town were always disturbing. I never knew where we were going to end up.
I got up to look, scrambling for what I’d say when there was nothing there. But in a corner of the yard, a large gray doe was cropping the grass close to the post where the lawn mower didn’t reach. She was big and wild and unexpected and glorious. Both Mom and I caught our breath. For a moment she looked right at us (though more than likely she glimpsed her own reflection in the window). Then, with a flick of her tail, she gathered herself and soared effortlessly, weightlessly over the railing, leaving us wildly, wildly happy.
From the book: Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother © 2009 by Meg Federico. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
-by Apollinaire Scherr
Playwright Gina Gionfriddo ’91 is drawn to boundary issues, as one of her self-helped characters might put it.
In 2003’s After Ashley, a journalist insists his wife hire a homeless gardener. When the deranged handyman brutally murders the wife, the do-gooder husband parlays the tragedy into a daytime talk show. But the 17-year-old son wants the memory of his flirty, pothead mother safe from mass consumption. “Shame,” he says, “is an idea whose time has come.” The play garnered Gionfriddo an Obie Award (for off-Broadway theatre), a Lucille Lortell Award for Outstanding Play, and a staff-writing gig with the Law & Order franchise.
For her most recent play, Becky Shaw—a runaway hit at last year’s prestigious Humana Festival for new plays that sold out off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre for three months this winter—Gionfriddo “was thinking about caring for strangers,” she says. “To what extent are we responsible for people we don’t know very well?” The people she had in mind, as she often does in her work, were the soldiers doing our fighting for us in Iraq. “It’s a war that feels very distant. It’s gone on for so long that people are sort of disengaged.” In Becky Shaw, she brings it home—obliquely.
In a Barnard playwriting course, Gionfriddo was sent out to eavesdrop on conversations and transcribe them word for word. She found that “people talk around and around what they want to say.” And her plays adhere to that indirection. Becky Shaw, a finalist for the 2009 Pultizer Prize in drama, buzzes around a blind date between the stunningly clingy Becky, and Max, an acerbic commitment-phobe whose sensitive quasi-brother-in-law, Andrew, runs the office where Becky temps. “She’s in a transitional life space,” sympathizes Andrew. No, says Max, “she’s a 35-year-old office temp with no money, no friends, no relationship, no family. How the f--- could you set me up with that?” The war appears casually when Max complains about a previous date with a “dance professor who wanted to tell me about this protest at Harvard—some ‘Artists Emoting Against the War’ bullshit.” The audience laughs.
Gionfriddo, a native of Washington, D.C., didn’t intend to be a playwright. When she headed to Barnard, she wanted to act. “I gave up the idea more quickly than if I’d been at, say, Oberlin,” she explains, “because I had the opportunity to see the audition process” while interning at off-off-Broadway’s Primary Stages. “It was offputting. A lot of the discussion about who to cast was about things the actor couldn’t control.”
Meanwhile, she “got very interested in watching the writers make changes during the rehearsal process.” One of those writers was the experimentalist Mac Wellman, “who was kind enough to say, ‘Why don’t you let me read something you’ve written?’ And he said, ‘You know, you ought to go to graduate school and really do this.’” So she did.
In all of her plays, “there’s a character who’s compulsively making jokes to stave off pain,” she says. The humor is savage and sharp. At Becky Shaw, for example, the audience’s laughter came in bursts, as if it caught them off guard. “I don’t sit down to be funny,” Gionfriddo insists. “I figure out what I want to write about and that’s just how I process it. I think with difficult subjects, humor makes it more palatable. It can open people up.”
Not to everything, though. Take foreclosures. “They’re not sexy,” she asserts. “Unfortunately, I don’t think the stories of America’s economic collapse are really going to be scarfed up unless people kill each other.”
People killing each other is something Gionfriddo knows a surprising amount about. It surprised René Balcer, head writer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, when he met with her after being wowed by After Ashley and discovered “what a backlog of knowledge I had about crime in America,” she admits. It even baffles her that true crime is her “preferred pleasure reading.” Balcer hired her, and a couple of years later she moved to the flagship show.
A nice thing about TV, she says, is that the scripts reach the audience within months. Stage plays, even sought-after plays such as her own, can languish in development limbo for years. And while the strict parameters of TV drama may limit what she can say—the 42 minutes for exactly four acts, the dictates on the dramatic arc that the commercial breaks impose—there is an upside. When she’s working on her own plays now, “I’m more disciplined about editing,” she says. “I’m better at not being self-indulgent.”
-by Apollinaire Scherr, photograph by Peter Hocking
Archaeology brings to mind myriad images—action-packed movie sequences, blockbuster museum exhibits of dinosaur bones, scientists unearthing dusty bits of pottery in the hot sun. How then does someone piece together the real work of the archaeologist from these fragments? Professionals combine a sense of adventure with serious academic training, and the Barnard women seeking a career in the field discover this and more in the new concentration offered through Barnard’s department of anthropology.
“Archaeology is anthropology, or it is nothing!” exclaimed this writer’s professor on the first day of “Introduction to Archaeology” more than 10 years ago. She was stressing the indispensible relationship between the two disciplines. The Barnard archaeology concentration highlights the importance of the subject as a critical part of anthropological work. Says the department’s Web site, “Within anthropology, archaeologists specialize in the study of human communities through the material worlds they produce, consume, dwell within, and leave behind.”
From that premise, the archaeology student specializes in the material culture left behind by human communities, especially when archaeological remains provide the only clues to a society’s unwritten past. Severin Fowles, assistant professor of anthropology and a specialist in Native-American and North-American archaeology, acknowledges the disciplinary ambiguity: “Disciplinary boundaries methodologically, empirically, and theoretically overlap, and this should empower students.” In addition to anthropology, classes in art history, classics, East Asian or Near Eastern studies, and “hard sciences,” count toward the concentration, reflecting the wide range of faculty expertise and student interest.
Before the concentration, Barnard students worked within the anthropology department to design their own majors. “They were constructing projects on a one-to-one basis,” says Fowles, who currently advises all Barnard archaeology students. But, there was a growing interest in an archaeology concentration; the chance to specialize in archaeology fulfills a need to direct questions to faculty and find camaraderie with other students. And students led the initiative for the concentration. “We are responding to them rather than directing them,” says Fowles.
At Barnard—and Columbia—students draw upon the breadth and depth of faculty expertise, from regional archaeology in New York City to sites around the United States and the world. Fowles emphasizes the excitement surrounding the curriculum: “We’re offering courses not offered anywhere else—archaeological theory, the relationships between humans and animals in societies, idolatry, the body—and students are responding wonderfully.” A new course taught by Columbia faculty member Brian Boyd, “Pasts, Presents & Futures: An Introduction to 21st Century Archaeology” (ACLG V2028), explores key questions about the discipline and, according to Fowles, “centralizes what we think.” Students begin with “Interpretation of Cultures” (ANTH V 1002) where they engage with classic anthropological literature, gaining tools and insights to inform their archaeological interests.
In addition, “The Origins of Human Society” (ANTH V 1007) and “The Rise of Civilization” (ANTH V 1008) summarize world archaeology and, says Fowles, “are where we recruit students—where we draw them to the field.” Christina Perry ’09 concurs: “I was introduced to the subject through Professor Fowles’ class ‘Origins of Human Society,’ which is a survey class with a very broad time span. But the course is also really accessible and I think it gets a lot of people thinking about archaeology.” Perry has since done work in the southwestern United States and most recently conducted excavations on an island off the Georgia coast.
These two requirements as well as either Anthropological Theory I or II (ANTH V 3040 or ANTH V 3041) testify to the strong anthropological grounding in the new concentration. Besides exploring the meaning of archaeology and topics across cultures and time periods, students learn about critical issues they will face in the field. Areas of the world rich in archaeological sites are often politically and geographically contested regions where personal safety is a risk. There are complex issues surrounding cultural heritage, looting, and the illicit trade in antiquities. Archaeologists must forge relationships with source communities as well, particularly when confronting debates surrounding repatriation of artifacts. Although the curriculum has yet to include courses on these topics alone, Fowles emphasized that their discussion is pervasive in many courses; students learn there is no choice for archaeologists but to be deeply engaged in the politics of the moment.
The Barnard concentration benefits from its relationship with Columbia through additional faculty and courses as well as through the Columbia Center for Archaeology, which holds numerous events and workshops. The College’s program has a history of strong relationships with other institutions—many students work as interns or serve on projects through the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as other universities.
Jen Thum ’09 is one such student. For her thesis she has chosen to write about Roman mummy portraits in northern Egypt and has participated in digs across several countries. When asked why archaeology, she says: “It’s a unique marriage of art and history—so tangible, so physical. Art and history are more abstract; with archaeology you have ... physical contact with the object.” Thum also founded “GLAM” (Gotham League of Archaeology Majors) to bring together the Barnard and Columbia archaeology community (as well as that of the corresponding New York community) for professional development and socializing.
Professor Fowles is confident that the concentration trains Barnard women for high achievement across the field, “It provides them with a set of experiences and skills [that will allow them to] be successful working for museums, the government, academia, etc. We guide them through field work, encourage them to take internships, and to present at professional conferences.” Will the number of aspiring archeologists increase? Growth, he insists, will not be fueled by Barnard or Columbia faculty, but by the students themselves.
-by Stephanie Shestakow '98, illustration by Stina Wirsén
The link between sexual justice and economic justice can be overlooked easily. For the most part, people think about sexuality as a private issue, and economics as a public one. Unsurprisingly scholars have treated the two movements separately, rarely pointing out where and how they intersect. A new report from the Barnard Center for Research on Women is trying to change that. Sexual and Economic Justice written by Kate Bedford and Janet Jakobsen, the center’s director, is part of the series New Feminist Solutions, which began in 2002. Each report is intended to inform and inspire activists and policy-makers to think in new ways, based on ideas that emerge from conferences held at the College.
Sexual and Economic Justice helps people think differently about how power, money, and sexual relationships shape our lives. The authors attempt to create a vision for sexual justice that challenges economic injustice and the denial of sexual rights. But the report is just the beginning. “It’s the spark to get the conversation going,” Jakobsen says.
The report is an outgrowth of the College’s Virginia C. Gildersleeve Lecture and colloquium at Barnard College, which featured keynote speakers Josephine Ho, founder of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at National Central University in Taiwan, and Naomi Klein, an author and syndicated columnist who writes about economic issues. Barnard also brought together 25 other scholars from points throughout world to take part in the daylong conversation.
Many scholars agree that women often make decisions about intimacy that are strongly influenced by their economic situation. They may marry so they can immigrate to a new country in search of a better life. Or they may marry to have access to health insurance. “But it doesn’t have to be that way,” maintains Jakobsen. “We can have other ways of getting access to health care.”
In the report, health care is one area where the connection between economic and sexual justice is most clear in the report. For example, women may want to make choices about safe sex to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. But if they don’t have the economic resources to support themselves, they may not have the power to negotiate for safe sex in a relationship; so they may not be able to control whether their husbands practice safe sex.
Economics and sexuality shape women’s everyday lives in less obvious ways, too. Much of the work they do in the home, such as raising children, cooking, or cleaning, is unpaid. That lack of economic power leaves women more dependent on sexual relationships for survival, and more vulnerable to abuse. During difficult financial times like these, the economic situation for many women can become even more precarious.
The report doesn’t simply want to illustrate where these issues of economic and sexual justice meet. Its authors encourage people to take action to make the world a better place, and they point out some models for activists.
For example, Pride at Work, a constituency group of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations), advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers within unions, and builds alliances between labor leaders and the LGBT community. Activists involved in the Beyond Marriage campaign in the United States demand legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, regardless of kinship or conjugal status. “Our hope is that if people pick up the report and think about these two issues together, they might build new organizations,” Jakobsen says.
To that end, the report is being distributed at international conferences sponsored by organizations such as the United Nations, and it’s making the rounds in the legal community, too. Readers will find a list of activist organizations with their Web addresses, along with a source list and a bibliography at the report’s conclusion. “It’s a little early to assess the impact,” Jakobsen says. “But so far the response has been very positive.”
-by Amy Miller, photograph by Polly Becker
To download this or any other report in the New Feminist Solution series, visit www.barnard.edu/bcrw or call 212.854.2067 to request a printed copy.
When Joi Rae ’11 fi rst came to Barnard she knew she wanted to pursue a political science major. Since becoming involved with Civic Engagement House, taking classes with eight other Barnard sophomores around issues of public service, and living together in an activist community in Cathedral Gardens, Rae has fine-tuned her focus. “After I came into the [Civic Engagement] program, I realized that I wanted to do a concentration in human rights for my major,” she says. So Rae has set off on a series of courses dealing with human rights within the political realm.
Likewise, Rachel Gerson ’08, now a paralegal case handler for the New York Legal Assistance Group, was a psychology major when she became involved with Civic Engagement House in 2005, then at Plimpton Hall. “The program made me realize that there are so many things I could do with a psych degree aside from being a therapist,” she says. “Now I’m interested in mental-health issues from a legal perspective.” She plans to apply to law school in the fall.
A nonacademic living arrangement, which combines non-credit bearing seminars, shared housing, and independent community-based work, and now entering its fifth year, Civic Engagement House is designed to show sophomores with an interest in public service how their campus activism can fuse with academic and career pursuits. “We picked the sophomore year specifically,” says Will Simpkins, program director of community and diversity initiatives with the Office of Career Development and the New York City Civic Engagement Program. “In the first year, the students are focused on getting acquainted with Barnard; in the junior year they’re new members of their majors; in the senior year they’re writing their theses, but the sophomores don’t yet have a small community.”
The program begins in the fall with weekly seminars led by Simpkins. Along with lessons in community organizing, Simpkins invites community leaders and public service professionals, many of them Barnard alumnae, to speak to the students. “We feel like we’re activists now, but these women are still doing it” says Rae. “They haven’t stopped since college.” Toward the end of the first semester the students write position papers on a topic that matches their public-service interest. When the next semester rolls around, the participants find internships in New York City. They continue meeting as a group and privately with Simpkins to discuss how their internship is progressing.
Marissa Jeffery ’11, for example, is interested in both women’s studies and the environment. She landed an internship with the Women’s Environment & Development Organization, a non-governmental group working to empower women as decision-makers who will further goals of social and gender justice as well as a healthy planet. “Women around the world are the caretakers of the environment, they’re the ones who fetch the water and so on; they suffer the most when these resources aren’t cared for,” Jeffery explains.
Her classmate Rae did an internship with organizers of the Left Forum, an annual conference of progressive thinkers that takes place in New York City each spring. Likewise Tiara Miles ’11 is the site director for Barnard’s Let’s Get Ready, an SAT preparation program for disadvantaged high school students. In addition to their internships, the students create a grassroots project that involves other Barnard students to give them a taste of community organizing. Some students participate in charity events and enlist their classmates to take part. Others focus on an issue in New York City and petition city council members. Throughout the program, they live together in Cathedral Gardens, the housing suites farthest from campus, further fostering the sense of an activist community. “It’s not just something you do, but you also live civic engagement,” says Miles.
-by Ilana Polyak, illustration by Stine Westergaard
The visual arts concentration within the art history department offers more than the opportunity to paint or draw. In our media-saturated society, studying and participating “hands-on” in the visual arts gives greater definition to a liberal arts education. “Our program explores the meaning behind the signs and symbols of communication; it gives students the opportunity to study and understand the social and political consequences of imagery,” says Joan Snitzer, the program’s director and senior lecturer. An artist with an MFA from Hunter College, she came to Barnard 20 years ago, and today, in addition to teaching, leads the undergraduate seminar, “Imagery and Form in the Arts.” In order to pursue the concentration, students are required to take a minimum of six art-history courses to gain context and perspective as they approach the creation of their own works and projects. Those who choose the visual arts concentration go on to a diverse array of graduate studies, says Snitzer, often drawing upon other academic disciplines for the senior thesis, which can be in any medium, but requires an artist’s statement that is well written, gives a historical context and/or background, as well as a social rationale, for the project. Says Snitzer, in a voice filled with enthusiasm, “The concentration adds a powerful and creative dimension to their overall academic experience.” Think of it as education “firing on all cylinders….”
-Photographs by Dorothy Hong
Mona El-Ghobashy’s friends have a joke about her relationship with Columbia. “They say I’ll have to be dragged out of Morningside Heights in a stretcher,” says the 35-year-old assistant professor, who graduated from Columbia College in 1995, received her PhD in political science from Columbia in 2006 and became an assistant professor in Barnard’s political science department that same year. “I even work at the same study carrel I used as an undergrad,” she deadpans.
Born in Cairo, but raised in New York City from the age of 8, El-Ghobashy currently teaches “Introduction to Comparative Politics,” and “Politics of the Middle East and North Africa,” in addition to a colloquium on social movements, and a senior thesis research seminar. Her research has focused on the current-day politics of the country of her birth.
“Egypt,” explains El-Ghobashy, “is one of these strange ‘hybrid regimes’ where they are authoritarian, but they are also democratic. Elections are held, but they are not free and fair. In Egypt, the top job, president, is hand picked by the predecessor.” Her dissertation, “Taming Leviathan: Constitutionalist Contention in Contemporary Egypt,” focused on the ways “counter-elites” like human rights and feminist lawyers get their voices heard.
Recently named a Carnegie Scholar and awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to work on her book, tentatively titled Petition and Protest in Authoritarian Egypt, El-Ghobashy sums up its theme with a seemingly simple question: How do ordinary people in Egypt without any links to government get things done?
“Elections exist for legislative bodies like Parliament, or at the municipal level,” she explains, “but they are often subject to rigging and intimidation. Ordinary people trying to elect someone other than the government incumbent are routinely subjected to violence, sometimes even death.” So how do ordinary Egyptians get things done?
According to El-Ghobashy, there are two main ways: protest and petition. Protests, she says, typically consist of 50 to 500 people taking to the streets “literally yelling,” insisting on accountable government and demanding rights like clean water, safe housing (collapsing buildings have been a problem), and stronger traffic regulations to curb frequent road accidents. “You wake up in Cairo,” says El-Ghobashy, “and it’s not a question of if there’s a protest, but where are the protests today?”
“Petition,” she explains, “is one of the oldest ways people make demands on their government.” El-Ghobashy cites the ancient Egyptian narrative/poem “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” thought to date from c. 1800 B.C.E., it is, she says, “essentially a petition asking for justice from the rulers.” Petitions in today’s Egypt, she explains, go through administrative courts—there is even a court designed to look at complaints against the government. Which begs the question: If people have official channels through which to express themselves, then what’s so authoritarian?
For El-Ghobashy, such questions are what make her field so exciting. “Political science has moved from thinking, ‘Oh, your elections aren’t free and fair, you’re not a democracy,’ to realizing that a majority of the world operates in these sort-of gray areas.”
As for teaching at Barnard, which she describes as “her dream job,” El-Ghobashy expresses equal enthusiasm. “I’m teaching in classrooms I sat in as a student. It’s surreal, but in a good way.” She pauses a moment, “I’m normally a loquacious person,” she says, “but I can’t find the words.”
-by Karen Schwatrz, photograph by Mark Mahaney
Financial markets continue to plunge and soar, often it seems, based on the headlines of the hour. The economy has wrought havoc with investment portfolios, budgets, operating expenses, and other myriad bottom-line operations. But, in the midst of this tumult, the primary focus of Barnard College remains constant. “Our mission is to educate,” affirms President Debora Spar, “and to provide the highest quality liberal-arts education to promising and ambitious young women.” Spar’s comment was part of her introductory remarks at recent meetings for faculty and staff to explain how this economic instability is challenging current and future College budgets and plans.
The keynote speaker was Gregory N. Brown, named chief operating officer of the College as of May 1, who served as vice president of finance and planning for the past three years. Brown, whose experience as financial officer at institutions of higher learning include the University of California-Berkeley, Yale, and most recently, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, elaborated on plans to cope in the near-term with strained resources. Articulate, and relaxed behind a podium, he quickly got down to the numbers.
The immediate question is the College’s endowment: once standing at over $200 million, it had declined to $163 million at the end of 2008. Because Barnard has a smaller endowment than virtually all of its peer institutions, the lower value of its investment portfolio has not affected operations to the degree that endowment-value declines have had on other institutions. Although over one-half of the endowment revenue funds scholarship awards, the spending from the endowment contributes only about 7 percent to operating expenses, notes Brown. The bulk of the College’s operating revenue comes from tuition, room, and board. A small tuition increase of 3 percent, the lowest increase in 10 years, has been approved for the fiscal year 2009-10 in order to minimize the strain on our students and their families during this difficult time.
A principal resource for financial aid is unrestricted gifts. In speaking of financial aid, Brown says, “Our biggest concern is to make sure that families who want to send their daughters to Barnard, or keep them enrolled during what may be a financially challenging time for them, can do so.” He himself is a firm believer in the importance of a liberal-arts education: a music major at Wesleyan University, he came to finance through a senior research project involving grants-writing for the arts, and shifted his focus from arts administration to higher education after he took his first job at Yale.
Based on recent estimates, Brown anticipates a rise in the demand for financial aid somewhere in the vicinity of 12 percent from 2008–09 to 2009–10, although it is still too early in the admissions cycle to know precisely what the figure will be. Brown says that Barnard will take full advantage of federal awards and loans to meet those needs. And, to make the loan process easier and less expensive for families, the College has recently become a federally approved direct lender. This designation will bypass the current uncertainties of the banking system. Another plus for financial aid was the Spring Scholarship Dinner and Auction fund-raiser this past April. The results were extremely encouraging with donors outstripping previous total monies raised before the event actually took place. The level of support from contributors, says Brown, has been gratifying, given the need and circumstances.
Both President Spar and Brown have high praise for the trustees of the College who have generously given additional financial support as well as their time to reach out to other potential supporters. Brown is the staff liaison to the investments, budget and finance, and audits and compliance committees of the board, meeting with the committee chairs and the committees themselves on a regular basis. He also works with the full board on various financial issues before the College. He and President Spar meet with her full cabinet at least every other week.
The College has been proactive in exploring ways to handle the strain on resources. Brown notes that at institutions much larger than Barnard, the decision-making process can be opaque and invariably slow. “We can be more nimble, both in our response to crises as well as to new opportunities.” In order to deal with the present situation, the College expects to defer new capital projects, reduce non-personnel expenses, provide no salary increases for staff and faculty, and closely scrutinize the need for new hires.
Fixed expenses, such as the intercorporate agreement with Columbia, and certain services like audits and elevator maintenance, account for 18 percent of operating expenditures. However, variable and discretionary expenditures will be closely monitored for increased cost-effectiveness and savings. The College has also engaged in a zero-based budgeting process to improve efficiencies in providing campus services while continuing to strengthen program activities.
Deferring capital expenditures will in no way imperil completion of the Nexus, as all the financing for the new multi-use building, to be completed in 2010, is already in place. Debt-service expenses related to the construction of Cathedral Gardens have been factored into fiscal plans for the next several years.
While the College’s mission of continuing to provide a top-quality education for bright and talented young women is the major focus of this concerted budget review, the administration has not overlooked the financial stresses on both faculty and staff. In partnership with Barnard’s Financial Fluency program (see Barnard, Winter 09), the College will offer a series of workshops in late spring on a variety of financial topics, ranging from savings and investments to retirement planning, for a cross-section of employees. The College has also increased the number of counseling and information sessions by its retirement-plan providers so employees can make informed choices about their personal finances during this difficult time.
Budget targets are expected to be reached for the 2009–10 fiscal year, but strategic planning calls for a watchful eye over future budgets for the next three to five years, particularly if the stock-market downturn and economic instability persist. The exception to this time line is the endowment: here, says Brown, the perspective needs to move beyond the near term to a horizon of 10, even 50 years, to secure the College’s future for generations to come.
Numbers are major focus for Brown, even away from Barnard. As treasurer of the board of an amateur choir group, he crunches more numbers, but true to that liberal-arts music major, he also sings with the group, as a bass-baritone.
-by Annette Kahn, photograph by Mark Mahaney