President Sian Leah Beilock Inaugural Address


Thank you, Jolyne and Cheryl. I may not wear this beautiful medal at all times-it's really heavy-but I can assure you that I will heed its call. I will follow the way of reason. I will do everything I can to earn the trust that you, by this insignia, have placed in me.

I may be standing solo at the podium in the vast magnificence of Riverside Church, but I am far from alone. I am truly awed by the show of support and the wonderful words from my friends and colleagues. Without you, this moment would not be possible for more reasons than I can state. I owe you all an immeasurable debt of gratitude, my wonderful family at the top of that list, and it is my hope and my goal to express this appreciation over time, by way of the work I do in the job that I have now officially taken on. 

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It is February and it is cold outside, and one might wonder why I chose to wait until the chill of winter, the risk of a snowstorm, to bring us together for this inauguration. Because I wanted a little time-time to get to know this special place. Time to understand what you are all about and what you need from me. Time to glimpse the spirit and the culture that are undeniably Barnard. 

This time has been especially important for me as president because one thing I know about myself is that I have a strong urge to dive in and take action. I wanted to be a jockey when I was a kid. I like to move fast! My grandfather had to break it to me. At six-years old, I was already too tall to be a jockey. I would have to find other ways to accelerate through life.

So here we are. And I can say that being Barnard's president is better than winning the Kentucky Derby. 

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Inauguration is a moment to reflect on what this College has been and to imagine what it can become. We cannot look forward without looking back or build a future without understanding the past. It is hard to aspire without perspective.

Let me start with this. I am Barnard's 8th president and 12th leader. You might wonder how that works. Our first leader, Ella Weed, was named chair of the academic committee at Barnard's founding in 1889. She was followed by four deans, the last of whom, Millicent McIntosh, was named president five years into her term. What is especially remarkable is that every one of Barnard's dozen leaders has been a woman. Among other colleges and universities, and even our sister colleges, only a very few schools can make this claim, and it is a point of pride. 

Ella Weed, Emily Smith, Laura Gill, Virginia Gildersleeve, Millicent McIntosh, Rosemary Park, Martha Peterson, Jacquelyn Mattfeld, Ellen Futter, Judith Shapiro, Debora Spar. 

It feels important to say these names in succession and, by so doing, be reminded of the legacy these women have built. To follow in this extraordinary line-up is the honor of a lifetime and, while most of my predecessors are not here today, I can feel their power even now. I am delighted, of course, by the presence of Ellen, Judith and Debora. I have spoken with each of you, in person and over the phone (even on short notice when I needed a quick piece of advice), and I am grateful for your wisdom and your lead. 

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When I was appointed president, I went home to tell my six-year-old daughter Sarah the news. "I'm going to be president of Barnard College," I said. "Are we going to live in the White House?" she asked.  

Easy point of confusion, but after that was cleared up, she would, as kids do, ask for this or that concession from me. Some requests I could fulfill (a bunk bed for our New York apartment), others I couldn't. 

After reading a book about pioneering women astronauts, Sarah asked if the next plane flight we took could be to the moon. My answer was "no," to which she replied, "But you're the president."

Sarah is only beginning to learn that both my power and ability have limits. She reminds me daily that I don't have all the answers and, even if I did, I couldn't single-handedly make it all work.

This is precisely why I am fortunate to have an exceptional faculty to work in tandem with, an outstanding staff, generous and devoted trustees to call on, and Barnard's proud alumnae to learn from-not to mention our students who inspire and challenge me daily. I cannot thank you enough. 

There are far too many names to mention, but I do want to note my Chief Operating Officer Rob Goldberg in his role as interim president prior to my taking office. Thank you, Rob, for enabling such a graceful transition.

I have managed to arrive at a time when Barnard is in excellent shape. From Ellen Futter, who really turned this place around when its future as an autonomous institution was in doubt, to Judith Shapiro, who inherited the College on the upswing and brought it even higher in terms of selectivity, faculty and endowment.  And most recently, Debora Spar, who helped us raise record dollars for our newest building and other critical ventures. None of their tenures were fully predictable, but each made tremendous strides to propel the College forward.

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There are different leaders for different times.

So why me now?

If you were to ask my mother, she could give you a long list of reasons (and tell you to remind me to get some rest). I imagine that my research on success for women and girls had something to do with it. And the fact that I have been a faculty member and an administrative leader. But rather than belabor the fit-which I think is a great one-what I can do is #1: thank you for choosing me, and #2: give you a sense of what I envision for Barnard going forward, and why I believe this direction makes sense for our time.

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I am a scientist, by training and by nature, and that colors how I approach everything. I crave data, I crave trials and I crave testing, evidence and examination. I also received an education grounded in the liberal arts and I can vouch for its significance in how I see the world. 

At Barnard, we have been known throughout our history for strength in writing, in the arts, in the social sciences, in dance. These areas of eminence that have long been externally recognized and for very good reason, and I look forward to helping these areas continue to thrive and grow to ever greater heights. More recently, we are also rapidly growing in the sciences, with more students than ever majoring in these fields and prominent faculty teaching and doing research in these departments. 

While women remain underrepresented in many of the sciences, Barnard is on a rising trend to change that. About one third of our students are graduating in science fields. And, not only does Barnard give them a foundation in the liberal arts that make them better equipped to succeed, but we have something else that makes us very special. Our size and research prowess mean that we can be nimble and multi-faceted in our approach to building a strong presence in the fast-moving sciences. 

In computer science, for example, there are important areas like artificial intelligence, open data, ethics and privacy where we can be out front. And in fields that are growing in popularity such as neuroscience and environmental science, we take an interdisciplinary and innovative approach. Our students help us do this. Mirroring the leading work our faculty does in environmental science, for example, the students helped make campus sustainability a priority and worked with faculty, administrative leaders, and the Board of Trustees to make Barnard a leader in divestment from companies that specifically hinder the free flow of information about climate science. 

It's interesting to note that Rosemary Park, Millicent McIntosh's successor and Barnard's second president, encouraged Barnard women to pursue the sciences and advocated for the College to have a science lab of its own. She understood, at a time of nuclear testing and the space race, that society would need great scientists and that Barnard women could be part of the equation. In her 1963 inauguration speech, Rosemary Park expressed her belief that the liberal arts (including the sciences) were imperative in contributing to the ideals of truth.

The new Milstein Teaching and Learning Center will go a long way towards supporting our work in math, science, and technology and also the humanities and arts. It will be an epicenter of thinking digitally and empirically-from the computational science center to centers dedicated to digital humanities, empirical reasoning, media, movement and design. 

Barnard's extraordinary model of scholarship means that our students get hands-on experiences in creating new knowledge. They are working side-by-side with faculty at such an advanced level, whether in a chemistry lab or on an archaeological dig.  A new Center for Engaged Pedagogy - to be housed in Milstein - will help support the practice of teaching and the experience of learning in innovative ways. My research on the mind and body, performance anxiety and gender stereotyping, certainly applies to this endeavor. 

It is this link, between our renown in the liberal arts and our bold moves toward new modes of thinking that will serve our students well into the future. 

I cannot wait to see what emerges when the doors open and the learning begins later this year. Thank you to the Milsteins and everyone who contributed, financially and with sweat equity, to make it possible. 

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I wasn't New York born and bred but, with a nod to Billy Joel, I have a New York state of mind. I started on the west coast, studied and worked in the Midwest, and now, I am here. In crossing the country, I have learned to embrace the best of wherever I find myself, and this remains my mindset in Morningside Heights.

Barnard College is not just IN the City of New York, it is OF the City. Our students have every chance to use the City as their extended classroom. With a strong sense of community and the faculty to support them, they venture forth to explore unparalleled possibilities for learning. 

With our ambitious new initiative, the Harlem Semester, which comes out of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, a student can take a class in partnership with the iconic Apollo Theater called "Black Women, Performance, and the Politics of Style." With Barnard Teaches, faculty develop courses in partnership with some of the City's most iconic institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library. 

Then there's Science in the City, Arts and Humanities in the City, and Math and the City, in which students investigate ways to use New York as resources for teaching and learning, along with some public school teachers. 

And today, three-quarters of Barnard students participate in internships across New York City where they learn to apply the tools of the liberal arts-writing, data analysis, historical perspectives-to the opportunities and challenges that face the world today. They also develop valuable contacts, mentors, and even offers of future employment.
 
At the University of Chicago, I was very involved with urban scholarship-I oversaw efforts to build collaborations and innovative programs that would connect the University with Chicago's Southside and neighborhoods, and across the world. 

This is experience that I bring to Barnard, and I am looking forward to strengthening our connection with the City-not just what it gives to us, but what we can do for its neighborhoods and institutions, in return. 

The opportunity exists to extend learning further using the City's resources-in course development, in the cultivation of even more cultural and civic partnerships, and through internships that complement the curriculum, and I hope to push the bounds of the classroom in new and innovative ways.

Clearly, Barnard is much more than a college on a hilltop, and our distinct and important relationship with Columbia University speaks to that. It may be complex, but it is rich and dynamic, and I am excited by the possibilities. Aspects of this duo, such as cross-registration, are so familiar that we take them for granted. But other incredible opportunities are less well-known and I hope to mine them further over the next few years. 

Among them are several combined bachelor and masters programs that already exist though are somewhat under the radar, and we are discussing the potential for more combined programs with the School of Public Health and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, to name a few. This is a positive opportunity for Barnard faculty, as well. Tenured at both Barnard and Columbia, they bring their outstanding scholarship and experiences, and their commitment to academic excellence, to students at both institutions.

We are fortunate to be part of Columbia University, and I want to thank President Bollinger for the support he has shown and for being here today.

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I was recently asked, "What keeps you up at night?" It will come as no surprise that the list is longer now than before I became Barnard's president.

There are two big things… 

First, can I ensure that Barnard makes it a priority to educate young women from diverse backgrounds? Participation of underrepresented groups is a tradition that the College has upheld since its founding. And, simply put, a diversity of lived experiences and viewpoints-in an environment that allows for open dialogue and understanding-is vital to our scholarship. In addition, our policy of need-blind admissions is at the core of who we are and supports how we value economic mobility.  We know that ability is more widespread than opportunity, and we will do more to address these issues and to build on this promise.

Money is part of it, but so is intention. As next steps, we recently announced new opportunities for deepening faculty diversity, and when they leave, and are working to be proactive in supporting students from all backgrounds while on campus, and are thinking about how best to enhance community engagement-the goal is not just to look in, but to learn from what is happening around us. Of course, another vital piece of the puzzle, in this difficult time for our country and the world, is to constantly develop new ways for our students to learn and perform up to their potential in an environment free from fear… and hate. 

If that means staying up all night, I'll stay up all night.

Second. I want to be sure that our students are ready-not just for doing well here… that's the baseline… but for what happens after Barnard… for doing well out there. 

Life beyond the Barnard gates doesn't start at graduation-it starts when students set foot on campus as first years. In the same vein, our job as educators doesn't end with graduation handshakes either.  Four years at Barnard is a piece of a much larger and more complex puzzle, and we need to attend to it all. 

That is why I have been working with Provost Bell, Dean Hinkson and faculty advisors to think about how we can better help students integrate what they are doing off campus-in internships and employment-with their academic studies.  There is often a false dichotomy that students need one set of skills for graduate and professional school and another for industry, non-profit, or government work. But I would argue that being an effective writer, communicator, researcher, critical thinker, and team player… these are all vital, whether you end up in the classroom or the meeting room. 

So, with the new initiative, Beyond Barnard, we are creating a unified office to address these issues and to help ensure that newly minted Barnard alumnae are equipped with more efficient ways of using what they have learned. And with the skills of the liberal arts that our distinguished faculty has given them, our students can build the plan they need to succeed in whatever career path they choose-even some we can't imagine today. 

Barnard students have brought incredible talent and determination to this campus, and we are here, in great part, to help them grow. It is my job, our job, to see that they leave here ready to go, no matter what their next step in life might be. 

I would argue, that this effort is especially critical right now. More loudly than ever in our 128 years, we need to tell the story-that a Barnard education is the best foundation, the best set of tools, for all graduate and career paths. 

And, most significantly, we need to ensure that our students and graduates will, as they have always done, boldly pursue their dreams. With the support of the community and over 35,000 alumnae, this diverse set of young women will make the world a better place. They will value science and evidence and truth. They will protect the arts and the humanities. They will explore the unknown and drive innovation. And they will use their knowledge and their voices for change… at Barnard… and Beyond Barnard.

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I will end this speech so that we can start the celebration and then I can get back to work… work that I am honored to embrace. Barnard has already changed me, and I hope that what I do in return will make you proud.

This line from Elizabeth Bishop's poem, so beautifully read by Saskia Hamilton, may be the perfect clarion call with which to close…

"It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free."

Thank you for being here.