In the Parisian weekly magazine LE MONDE, read a feature article about Barnard. 

Click here to view a PDF of the article from the print issue.

English translation:

Welcome to Barnard, New York City,

In the Lab of Women of Power.

It is the beginning of the academic year. Like 53 other higher education institutions in the United States, this prestigious college is exclusively for women. For the last 122 years, this venerable institution has considered separate education for women as the best way to prepare female students to conquer the world.

By Annick Cojean, photos by Brian Finke.

“AN ABERRATION?”  The young woman opens her eyes wide and freezes for a moment. “You are asking me if my college is an aberration in the year 2011?” Slightly embarrassed by the provocation contained in the word, yet delighted by its immediate effect, the interviewer confirms the question. The student, a pretty, slender girl wearing terry cloth shorts, carrying her computer over her shoulder and holding her Blackberry, who was stopped on her way out of a language class on the Barnard campus, hesitates between indignation and a kind of amused sympathy for what seems to her to be total ignorance of the subject.

But this college, in the heart of New York , is one of the most advanced in America – in its approach to education, in its modus operandi, in its achievements! Its graduating women are well-equipped to conquer the world. Everything is done to instill confidence in ourselves and to show us that we can reach our dreams and have an impact on society. Does betting on women seem an aberration to you?

She definitely scored a point, and she is obviously pleased.  There was a hint of defiance in her look. No. We agree that betting on women is a smart thing to do.  Even in a country where they are now accepted in all major universities, including in military academies, where they are more numerous than men in most universities (and they often receive better grades than men), in a country where they manage to secure top-level positions in politics (Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House), what is the point of maintaining women’s colleges?  Why should young women be separated from the real world in which they will work and live later in contact with men?

THE YOUNG WOMAN SNAPS BACK: “First: We are not in a convent! Thank God, male students from Columbia University may attend classes with us and have access to our campus. Second: Neither American society nor French society treats women as equal to men. Women are paid less and are under-represented at the highest echelons. You cannot ignore the existence of a glass ceiling. Therefore, it is totally appropriate that a school would specifically endeavor to prepare women to meet those challenges and exploit their potential in the most efficient way possible. Third: In case you didn’t know, both [Hillary] Clinton and [Nancy] Pelosi are graduates of women’s colleges!”  As soon as she had said this, and even before we could ask for her name, she disappeared in a flash, with a lovely smile. However, she had managed to present the strongest arguments in support of her case. Or almost the strongest.

She had expressed the Barnard passion.  The Barnard pride.  Not always without a certain arrogance, though. She had expressed that deep conviction that is shared by Barnard students, the conviction they made the right choice.  A choice that would guide them throughout their life and provide them with a permanent membership in a network, almost a clan, which for one hundred and twenty-two years has never betrayed the solidarity among the Barnard Women community, a proud sorority.  During close to one week of meetings on the small campus located in the northern part of Manhattan, opposite the gates of Columbia University, between Central Park and Harlem, students, professors, and researchers repeatedly proclaimed the modernity of a prestigious women’s college.  They asserted the need, “because such is the real world,” to prepare them to carve a path – and to shine – in a professional word still dominated by men.

A determinately feminist position. Beware, however.  In the United States, this word is still vague. And if most claim it as an accepted fact, others think it is too reminiscent of the battles of their mothers and grandmothers and would prefer using a more contemporary word.

Let’s first look at history and go back to 1889. At that time, led by a young female writer enraged by Columbia University’s refusal to admit women, a small group of 36 students and six professors officially created Barnard College in a Madison Avenue house.  The college was named after a former Columbia University president who had fought without success to open the doors of his institution to women.  Thanks to donations from wealthy women supporters, the school soon moved to a location on Broadway, right across the street from Columbia University, where it took root, expanded, and rapidly forged a strong partnership with the male-only institution while remaining totally autonomous.  Its stellar teaching earned it the distinction of becoming one of the Seven Sisters – the network composed of the seven best colleges for women on the East Coast, in parallel with the Ivy League, which includes the most prestigious universities for men.

THEN CAME THE SIXTIES, and with them a strong push for coeducation.  Traditional universities which until that time had been only for men began opening their doors to women, while some women’s colleges became coeducational. Two member institutions among the Seven Sisters opted for change. One of them, Radcliffe College, ended up merging with Harvard University (Massachusetts). The other one, Vassar College, refused to become part of Yale University (Connecticut) and became an independent coeducational institution. Barnard, though, refused to change.

Columbia University, however, had long dreamed of absorbing Barnard, and its President aggressively courted Barnard leaders. To no avail. The young Barnard President, Ellen Futter ’71, a quasi-mythical figure at Barnard (she is now the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City), dug her heels. She asserted, with the enthusiastic support of her Board, that high-quality educational institutions for women remained totally justified. Her position did not change. Thirty years later, she explained that “The issue is not limited to access to education for young women! Just as important is the way they are listened to, respected, encouraged, and spurred into action. It is the way the faculty is dedicated to them, to them only, the way they are allowed to blossom. In other words, it is about how seriously they are taken. And this is what Barnard has always done.”

An agreement was finally reached in 1982: Columbia University agreed to open its doors to young women. Barnard was to keep its own governance, programs, and professors, and it retained control over its recruitment of female students. At the same time, an ideal mode of partnership was established with Columbia University. Students from both institutions are allowed to enroll in the courses they like at either school, they enjoy the use of multiple facilities placed at their disposal by both schools (labs, studios, libraries, …), and Barnard students (housed in double rooms on campus) receive diplomas signed by both Barnard College President and Columbia University President.

According to Ellen Futter, it is a unique model – “and a method that works!”  As early as 1976, a survey ranked Barnard first among women’s colleges with respect to the number of students enrolling in doctoral studies and to the number of students who became doctors and lawyers. Since Barnard is the most selective of all, its reputation grew even more. Overall, however, all the surveys demonstrate the efficiency of higher education institutions for women (there are 53 of them at this time in the United States).

THUS, IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT ONLY 2% OF ALL FEMALE STUDENTS have enrolled in colleges for women during the last thirty years, graduates from these colleges make up 20% of the women elected to Congress, 30% of the Rising Stars identified by the periodical Business Week in the business world, and 33% of the female members of the most powerful boards of directors. A very high proportion of women doctors and researchers obtained their diplomas in women’s colleges. These results are so significant that several major universities (such as Duke University in North Carolina) decided to create mini-schools for women only on their own campuses. “You see that this concept is not obsolete, but wildly 21st century!” proclaimed Ellen Futter.

All the assertive Barnard Women we met on campus loved that phrase. They are convinced that they really incarnate ultimate modernity. Shilpa Guha ’12, a 21 year old senior of Indian origin, takes classes in political science, human rights, and French. She has already done many internships and tutored underprivileged children, and she is beginning to do pro bono translation in order to help fulfill her dream to work for the United Nations, on women’s issues, in NGOs, or in diplomacy.

Sara Lederman ’12, a 21-year old student in anthropology and religion from Minneapolis, already worked as an intern in New York City and in Pakistan for the international children’s program Sesame Street, and she intends to enroll in doctoral studies. Nicole Sundell ’15, 18 years of age, newly arrived from Kansas, is interested in neuroscience and intends to get involved in research activities in the field of oncology. Delaney Wing ’15, a student of Asian background hailing from North Carolina, had hoped to become a dancer, but an injury redirected her toward theater activities and Broadway stages. She wants to study science and French, and she ultimately would like to become a lawyer specialized in entertainment law and representation of artists. Or Lindsey Harris ’13, 20 years of age, who came down from Massachusetts and is passionate about studying the evolution of cities and sustainable development, intends to travel to India, Senegal, and Argentina for case studies as part of a Barnard program and dreams of working with the Mayor of New York City to analyze the problems that will result from population increase: “In twenty years, the population of the city will increase from 7 to 9 million! We will have to deal with new approaches to housing, transportation, health, security, pollution… So many challenges!”

Wildly 21st century, as Ellen Futter would say. Yet realistic! according to Debora Spar who, before becoming Barnard President, had done research and taught at the prestigious Harvard Business School. “Everything is possible for these young women! No door should be closed to them. They are smart, energetic, and imaginative. They met all of our demanding admission criteria [out of 5,154 applications this year – a record – 1,284 were accepted, and 616 of these accepted applicants chose to enroll in the school]. It is up to us, for the next four years, to provide them with an environment that is both protective and stimulating, so as to enable them to find their strengths, to give them enough time to let them explore several fields of study, to help them find themselves, become confident, and receive the necessary training.”

According to her, these four years are extremely important because since they will be surrounded and coached mainly by women, they can show how smart they are in the classroom without the fear to be considered not sexy enough; they will be free to express themselves without fearing that their ideas will be interpreted as a “women’s point of view;” but they can also speak about fashion rather than football without being viewed as stupid.

THEY CANNOT, HOWEVER, HIDE BEHIND MEN (or be controlled by them) to assume leadership positions in various student groups or on the editorial board of the school paper since, by definition, all these positions are open to women only. They always have in front of them female role models – professors, alumnae, members of the Board, and all kinds of professional women (lawyers, scientists, writers, elected officials) who often come to the campus and can become their mentors.

“I just received an e-mail from an alumna who had just been hired to occupy a high-level position on Wall Street,” continued Debora Spar. “She said that for the first time in four years, she was ‘the only woman in the room’ but as a result of the four years she spent at Barnard, she was able to hold her own with great serenity. This is what our school makes possible!”

She was told then that alumnae from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton would probably be just as confident in themselves. This is possible, replies Debora Spar, but she quoted a survey from March 2011, commissioned by the President of Princeton University, which showed that the female students of that prestigious university in New Jersey do not blossom there. In spite of better grades overall, they are less successful than male students, they do not secure the best scholarships, they do not get elected to major leadership positions on campus, and there are no female students who are the heads of student clubs or leagues, or leaders in the student government. Observers note that women tend to speak up less in the classroom. They rarely speak before having clearly formulated their ideas, while male students do not hesitate to raise their hand and express their opinions even before knowing how to explain it. Finally, these same observers indicate that female students tend to “underestimate themselves,” to “depreciate themselves verbally,” and to “step aside” while male students have a tendency to “overestimate themselves” and to “overrate themselves.”

An earlier survey conducted at Duke University generated similar outcomes. Women’s  colleges do not really try to protect female students from competition with male students. They endeavor to build up their confidence and to provide them with skills and techniques that will enable them to better confront the unequal world that is awaiting them. “Even better,” asserts the Barnard President. “We want to make leaders out of them! Women who rise up, celebrate diversity, assume positions of responsibility in the city, understand that they must think internationally, globally, and who want to help make the world a better place. It is then up to them!”

TWO YEARS AGO, the Athena Center for Leadership Studies was created within Barnard. Kathryn Kolbert, a respected attorney and a charismatic figure of the human rights battle, became its first Director. Her arrival on campus made the Center extremely attractive to the students. Classes, training sessions, scholarships, and symposiums abroad were organized, as well as eighty-five down-to-earth workshops open to non-students too: How to be convincing; how to be successful in a recruitment interview; how to efficiently lead a meeting; how to become more charismatic; how to build winning teams; how to successfully negotiate a raise; how to put an end to self-depreciation… Plus advice as to ways to manage your money or launch a website. A film festival (presenting features as well as documentaries) dedicated to the professional careers of successful women was launched. Because role models matter and “young women cannot become what they have never seen.” Each movie raises questions about fundamental values shared by women leaders all over the world, at any level, and shows reason for women to move up and assume responsibilities.

Even Kathryn Kolbert is impressed. “What I am allowed to create here is so astonishing that I did not believe possible. Nowhere else in the world can we see so much energy expended to develop the potential of all those young women!”  Athena Center students are encouraged to get off campus, to choose mentors with whom they can establish a long-lasting relationship – by e-mail, through Skype, or via regular meetings before a cup of coffee. They are told to think about what is really important to them, to find partners, and to get involved in social projects. They must observe the world around them, they must see how harsh and unfair it is, and it will then be up to them to decide how they can contribute to its improvement. Here and now.

Last year, Manya Ellenberg’s ’12 founded a program to provide high school students from poor neighborhoods with clothes for their first day of college or for their first recruitment interview. Freesia Levine ’11 had launched projects focused on raising teenagers’ awareness of the environment. Another student had launched a program aimed at preventing young people from dropping out of school. After discovering that one of them could not read, she had also started literacy classes… For Barnard Women, to be leaders does not always mean to be on Wall Street or in the Senate. Many quote Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of State, who had also attended a women’s college: “The concept of leadership is often misunderstood. People expect it to come from outside, like a powerful voice coming from a loudspeaker. True leadership, however, comes from a small inner voice. And opportunities to apply it abound, all around us… When we are able to demonstrate that what had been presented as truth is a fraud, when we dare to say that something is unfair, when we go out of our way to help someone, or when we choose a career less oriented toward money and more driven by the desire to make a difference.”

MONEY… NO STUDENT SPONTANEOUSLY MENTIONED IT, but this subject cannot be left out. Because tuition at Barnard, similar to that of the other major private universities, is extremely high, especially compared to French higher education institutions: approximately $50,000 (or EUR36,000) per year, excluding the cost of books and food. “My parents took the time to show me the details of the bills. And I can assure you that it motivated me to study as hard as I could!” explained New Jersey native Melanie Shapiro ’15, 18 years of age. Sara Lederman ’12 admits that the proceeds from the life insurance contract taken out by her father, who died when she was still a child, help pay for her tuition. “My parents had started saving when I was born, and everything was going well until the stock market crashed,” explained another student. “It is now a tremendous sacrifice.” She could have said “a smart investment” since diplomas from renowned universities always land you a cushy job in the labor market in the United States. The placement office at Barnard, which helps graduates to find their first job, is ranked among the most effective.

Jennifer Fondiller ’88, dean of admissions, confirmed that she selects students without taking into account their family’s income. “I do not want money to be one of the criteria for admission. We are looking for smart, original women who have multiple interests. We spend a great deal of time going through their applications and interviewing them. It is only after the end of the selection process that the particular financial situation of each applicant is considered. And if there is a problem, we look for a solution.” Reduced tuition, scholarships, grants, loans, jobs on campus … According to Ms. Fondiller, only 50% of the students’ families pay the entire tuition. She is, however, concerned about the percentage of African-American women (4.3% of the student body for the year 2010-2011, “a real concern” according to officials), but [the low numbers] may be explained by the smaller pool of applicants.

Life at Barnard is sometimes difficult and demanding, and competition is fierce. Students are often obsessed with grades, and it is not always easy living up to the ideal of the “perfect woman, both intellectual and active.” If, however, you ask an alumna to reveal a pleasant memory of the school that changed her life, she might mention, in addition to the Midnight Breakfast tradition – when the President, deans and faculty serve breakfast to students on the midnight before exam period– a quote from writer Anna Quindlen ’74: “At Barnard, I majored in Unafraid.”