Saying No to Zeus

The University community long imagined Columbia 
as the supreme Greek god, and Barnard as his daughter Athena. From the late 1960s to early ’80s, Wisdom 
fought hard not to be subsumed by her dad.

By Robert A. McCaughey, 
the Janet Robb Professor of History

The student-led disruptions that racked the Columbia campus in the spring of 1968 initially left Barnard unscathed. True, 115 Barnard students were arrested during the police evacuation of five Columbia buildings on April 30, and Barnard faculty had spoken out on the issues. Yet the ensuing negative press and alumni discontent were directed toward discredited Columbia University President Grayson Kirk, not toward the new Barnard president, Martha Peterson. In the aftermath of the protests, alumni giving fell off sharply, and its recently launched capital campaign ground to a halt. As one Barnard trustee characterized the situation: “They were in the red; we were in the black.” 

Barnard’s pass proved short-lived, however. Columbia decided that Barnard should help with the University’s financial recovery. The University’s new President William J. McGill observed that Barnard enjoyed benefits from its affiliation with Columbia for which it paid nothing. These benefits included use of Columbia libraries and athletic facilities by students and faculty, as well as cross-registration of Barnard students in Columbia classes for which no charge had been exacted since 1962. When presented with these bills, Barnard quietly agreed to pay up.

Dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences George K. Fraenkel had a more extreme plan in mind: faculty merger. If the Barnard and Columbia faculties merged, redundancies and course duplications—such as the three courses then being offered on Chaucer—would be eliminated. Downsizing Columbia’s faculty also made sense in light of the fact that Barnard faculty were paid less and taught more courses. Barnard senior faculty whom Dean Fraenkel deemed unsuited for graduate teaching would be limited to undergraduate instruction. Barnard junior faculty, meanwhile, would be subject to Columbia tenure procedures with their premium on publications, but otherwise expendable. Barnard trustees agreed to Dean Fraenkel’s tenure procedures that applied to other schools of the University whereby Barnard tenure nominees would be evaluated by a five-person faculty ad hoc committee consisting of three Columbia members and two Barnard members. This arrangement was assumed to result in fewer Barnard junior faculty securing tenure but agreed to as a cost-saving measure.

But a succession of Columbia deans in the 1970s had an even more radical solution: termination of the “1900 Agreement” that had given Barnard sole responsibility for the undergraduate instruction of women—coupled with admission of women to Columbia College. President McGill and Dean Fraenkel opposed this move, with McGill concerned it would be the end of Barnard. Nevertheless, this proposal appealed to faculty worried about Columbia College’s ability to attract top students now that it remained the last all-male Ivy after Dartmouth went co-ed in 1972.

Meanwhile, Barnard had its own problems. Several merger-averse trustees were concerned that President Peterson was too accommodating with Columbia and pressured her to retire in the spring of 1975. In her place came Jacquelyn A. Mattfeld, an experienced academic administrator and provost of Brown University. President Mattfeld made clear to Columbia that she was determined to resist further moves toward merger. But her presidency lasted only five years; the Barnard trustees fired her in May, 1980, without stated cause. Six weeks later, thirty-year-old Ellen V. Futter ’71, practicing attorney and Barnard board member for eight years, was elected acting president.

A week before President Futter’s installation, Michael I. Sovern became the University’s eighteenth president. A graduate of the College, long-time member of the Columbia Law School faculty, and formerly one of Futter’s professors, President Sovern was anxious to proceed with his own agenda. The issue of whether or not Columbia College should admit women was still unresolved. President Sovern was reluctant to go down in history as “The Butcher of Barnard.” He proposed instead that Barnard send enough of its students across Broadway so that Columbia College classes would be comprised of 40 percent women—the same percentage as the other Ivies. This could be done if Barnard students were required to take all ten courses of the core curriculum, though some sections could be taught by Barnard faculty. President Futter agreed to look into what this “de facto co-education” would mean for Barnard with the hope that it would obviate the need for Columbia College to break the 1900 Agreement. 

Ultimately, President Futter found President Sovern’s proposal unworkable without further modification. In response, Columbia College informed Barnard that it intended to terminate the 1900 Agreement and admit women beginning in 1983. Before an announcement to this effect was made, intense deliberations between Barnard and Columbia trustees produced a seven-year agreement that allowed Columbia to admit women in 1983 and reduced the number of Columbia faculty on ad hoc committees considering Barnard tenure nominees. No one mistook this second provision as more than face-saving, least of all President Futter. She told the Barnard faculty, “Barnard did not decide to terminate these discussions. The decision was not for Barnard to make.” She went on to describe the new Barnard-Columbia relationship in a manner that many present (myself included) heard as whistling by the graveyard: “We are more certain than ever before of a long-term stable relationship.” 

And so it turned out. Barnard promptly updated its curriculum, modernized its recruitment and admissions policies, lifted its fundraising game, and made a bet-the-farm wager on a new dorm. As Columbia’s financial fortunes recovered, cooperation where mutually beneficial—in athletics, interdisciplinary studies, the arts, and coed housing—replaced confrontation. The turn-around of New York City, from “ungovernable” in the 1970s to “the Big Apple” in the 1990s, also helped. Samuel Johnson’s gender attribution aside, maybe it was just a case of “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Latest IssueSpring 2023