A Time of Great Change

As Debora Spar bid adieu to her nine-year presidency, she sat down for a conversation with Jennifer Finney Boylan, the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence

portrait of womanJennifer Finney Boylan: We’re sitting here in President Spar’s office on one of her last days in office, a moderately sunshiny day in New York City, but kind of a gray day for the College because President Spar is taking her leave shortly. It’s a great opportunity to look back and think about where we are going and where we’ve been. Let’s begin by talking about the mission of women’s colleges at this particular moment in history. Has that mission changed since your presidency began?

Debora Spar: It’s been really interesting to watch the change over the nine years that I’ve been here. As you can imagine, this is one of the questions that I get all the time. What’s the mission of a women’s college? When I first started in 2008, I frequently got asked that question in a combative way, you know, “Why are you people still around?” And I felt like I had to make the argument, even though it wasn’t a difficult argument to make, that women’s colleges need to exist until the point when women have true equality.

And given that we don’t seem to be there, the world still needs us. I have to say now, in 2017, sort of sadly, it’s an easier argument to make. Given where the world and particularly the United States are right now, people really understand that the world is not equal for women. There are fights to be fought, there’s power that needs to be taken, and women’s colleges are really at the forefront of doing that.

JFB: How do you think our students have changed since 2008? 

DS: The students are always wonderful, and I believe that they have been getting even more wonderful every year. In addition, I am seeing the students becoming increasingly politicized in the past two or three years. In 2008, our students did their work, they were engaged with the world, they were curious about the world, but political engagement wasn’t really part of their portfolio. And I think what we’re seeing now is students are interested in running for office, doing community organizing, and they understand much more actively that they have to find their own voices and their own power not just because those things provide personal satisfaction but because the world needs them to express their power and their voices in a positive way. 

JFB: Let’s talk about you and your history. I’m curious what you knew about college presidencies before you took the job. Was it a gig that you’d always yearned for, or was it something that kind of fell into your lap? Or somewhere in between?

DS: Certainly if you had asked me when I was graduating from college if a college presidency was on the horizon, I would have laughed in your face, because I couldn’t have imagined taking this path. But one of the things I always tell our students is I think life for many of us unfolds very unlinearly. That’s certainly been my history—I’ve had the great opportunity and perhaps the foolishness to have leapt from one thing to another, and a college presidency was not something I was looking for. But when this particular job came about, it just seemed perfect. And I remember, after I had my preliminary interview with the amazing Board Chair Anna Quindlen ’74 and then Chair Emerita of the Board Helene Kaplan ’53, I came home and said to my husband, “I have no idea if they’ll even consider me seriously for this job because I have no history as a college president or with women’s colleges, but this is the job I want.” You know I really did kind of fall in love at first sight.

President Spar knows how to command a room! At last year’s L.A. Gala, she said hello to each guest with a personal connection. She is my inspiration to host, mentor, and lead with elegance, ease, and grace.

— Lauren Wolfen ’13

JFB: Can we talk more about where the College was in 2008, and compare it to where we are now? 

DS: What really resonated for me at the time was Anna Quindlen saying repeatedly and explicitly, in that beautiful Anna Quindlen way of capturing reality, that what Barnard needed was somebody to elevate it. Some had described the College as the best-kept secret in higher education, and Anna and others had pointed out that you don’t actually want to be a secret in higher education. When you are a place that is as good as Barnard, you want to be known for that. And I think that was a big part of my job.

The College was in great shape in 2008, but it was punching a little bit below its weight, and I think every smart girl in the greater New York metropolitan area knew about Barnard, but if you went out to Ohio, to Florida, certainly if you went to China or India, most 17-year-old girls had never heard of Barnard. So I think a big part of my job was to make sure that we got the word out about Barnard, that we kept investing in all of the fabulous things that Barnard was doing, but also that we really put Barnard on the map, and that we helped shape the narrative around what it means to be an elite women’s college in the 21st century.

How do you tell that story and spread news of Barnard beyond the New York metropolitan area? Part of this, of course, as it always is in any college presidency, is raising money and making sure that you have the funds on hand to continue to recruit and retain the best faculty and the best students. And a lot of that is increasing financial aid funds. It’s making sure that you have both the financial aid and the bandwidth to not only review the students in your applicant pool, but to make sure you’re recruiting the students you want. And to really make sure that you’re going to community organizations in various parts of the country and the world and telling the story about Barnard, so you’re really getting the 16-year-olds you want to be applying. 

Through the Global Symposia, strong support for faculty research abroad, and other mechanisms, President Spar has made a staunch effort to broaden Barnard's global scope. My time at Barnard has been all the more meaningful thanks to her efforts, and I'm deeply grateful to her. Thank you for your dedication, President Spar, and good luck at Lincoln Center!

- Maia Bix '17

JFB: What are some other good measures of your success? 

DS: One of the problems of running any non-profit is that you don’t have a lot of metrics, and I always ask the board to answer what I think of as the Ed Koch question, “How am I doin’?”

There are a couple of metrics that I take very seriously. The first is the number of students applying to the College. Ultimately, that gives us some sense of how we are being perceived in the world. I’m very gratified that our application numbers have gone through the roof over the past nine years. Equally important is what we call the yield: Of the students we accept, how many decide to come to Barnard? And all of those numbers have moved in a direction indicating increased strength. So our application pool has surged, our selectivity has declined from 31 percent in 2009 to 16 percent last year, and this year we are at less than 15 percent. So we are becoming way more selective year by year, and our yield rate is about 50 percent, which signals to me that young women don’t apply to Barnard by accident. They make a conscious decision to apply and when they get in, they come. 

The other critical pieces of this are the diversity in the applicant and the admit pool. The numbers of applicants and admits of color, international students, and first-generation students have gone up significantly. 

JFB: Looking back over the last nine years, is there a small moment that really charmed you that people don’t know about?

DS: I have to say most of my fondest memories are of individual student connections or moments with students. It was a great joy to watch our transgender students work with us to come up with a change in policy and then to watch them walk across the stage, and having been part of that moment in their lives, that was one of my favorite moments.

There are several students that I have known since before they applied, or at the moment that they applied. Students who were on the margin, who came from really under-resourced backgrounds, students who I kept an eye on—sometimes from a distance—and then got to watch walk across that stage, knowing that we had changed these young women’s lives. Commencement is always when these moments come to the forefront.

One of my favorite recent moments is a young woman who came into my office, sat where you are sitting, and said the College should be doing something about Syria. She said, “It’s a tragedy what’s happening there.” And I said, “You are completely right. If you come up with something that we can do, I will support you, but you need to come up with it.”

And this wonderful Barnard woman, she did her homework, she came back to me and said, “The refugee crisis is a tragedy. The only way it makes sense for Barnard to get involved is through education. That’s what we do—we’re not a humanitarian organization, we’re not a refugee organization. Could we create a scholarship for a Syrian woman?” And I said, “Let’s look into that. You go talk to our development folks and see what you can put together,” and she did. And she came up with a proposed scholarship. I took it to a potential donor family, and they agreed, and now we have the Ann and Andrew Tisch Scholarship for Refugee Women, a fully funded scholarship for a displaced refugee student. And it turns out we actually have somebody like this in our applicant pool already, so that person will be on campus in September. 

JFB: I wonder if you’d be willing to talk about if there are any things that you weren’t able to do—anything that still keeps you tossing and turning at night?

DS: There are so many things that keep me tossing and turning at night, but I think that it’s not so much things we haven’t been able to do; it’s things that haven’t been quite completed yet. So you know one of my biggest projects here has been overseeing the planning and funding and design of the new building, now named The Cheryl and Philip Milstein Teaching and Learning Center. So the good news for me personally is that the building is going up, the steel is up, we have the funding. But I won’t actually get to see it done. I won’t be able to take the hard-hat tour and see those spaces physically come into being. I’ll probably sneak back in the dead of night because I’m going to have to see it, but it won’t happen on my watch, so there is a sort of sadness around that.

Diversity is one of the core values at Barnard, and I think we’ve made significant progress, but there is still a sense for me that we haven’t done enough. I wish I had been able to do more.

JFB: I know that there are things you mentioned that you would have liked to have seen through, and yet here’s an opportunity for you to leap out of another airplane. I’m looking over your shoulder and seeing on your screen saver a picture of someone skydiving.

DS: Yes. That would be my son, much against his mother’s advice. I do not have any desire to leap out of a plane, though maybe metaphorically.

JFB: I had a son who jumped out of a plane in early high school. He was in South Africa at the time, and there was always that question of signing the permission slip. Do you sign it when your son asks?

DS: I did not sign. My son did it the day he turned 21 because I would not sign the permission slip. 

JFB: Speaking of taking leaps, here comes the presidency of Lincoln Center. How do you expect that job will be different or resemble the presidency of Barnard?

DS: I think there are a lot of similarities. They are both great nonprofits. I’ve spent my whole life in the nonprofit world. I think Lincoln Center, like Barnard, is a great New York institution. One of the things that defines Barnard is its role within New York City, and that gives this place a complexion that most other small liberal arts colleges just can’t have. Lincoln Center has that in a much broader way. Lincoln Center is a central cultural organization of this city. I get to stay in the same city, I get to work with many of the same people, and, interestingly, this was one of the reasons why the job was attractive—they’ve had some of the same goals that Barnard has had over the past few years, albeit in a different sector.

For example, one of Lincoln Center’s big goals is inclusion and diversity. How do you make sure that audiences coming to the opera and the ballet and Jazz at Lincoln Center are younger and more diverse, so that Lincoln Center remains deeply relevant to all of New York City’s populations? That resonates with some of what we’ve done here at Barnard. And how do you position Lincoln Center as a part of New York City, a place that tourists want to come to, a place that newly arrived residents of the city want to be a part of?

At the same time—and this is also something we’ve focused on here—how do we take this iconic historic institution and make it relevant for the 21st century? How do we bring technology into the experience? How do we expand our course offerings in the digital space around computer science, around applied math? One of the other things I’ve spent a lot of time working on here is better integrating technology into the workings of the College. Now I have to think about what in many ways is a more complicated but equally fascinating issue: how do you bring 21st-century technologies into the performing arts experience?

I always looked forward to finals season because that was when Barnard would host the "Dancing with DSPar" event! I never missed a semester, and dancing next to the College president never lost its novelty!

- Joanne Raptis '16

JFB: If there was a production that could be mounted at Lincoln Center that would most epitomize your Barnard presidency . . .

DS: Oohhhh…

JFB: What do you think? Aida ?

DS: Well, they die at the end in Aida , so that would be sad.

JFB: So not that. A Broadway musical?

DS: That’s a really good question. I’m going to have to think on that.

JFB: You started “Dessert with DSpar,” where seniors come to your apartment, and “Dancing with DSpar,” a high-intensity dance class you lead. Could you talk about how those solidified your bond with students?

DS: “Dessert with DSpar” morphed from a tradition that had been at the College in the past. We have six or seven evenings over the course of the year, and every single senior gets invited to one of those. I think this year we switched it to hors d’oeuvres because it worked better, but they get lots of food, and more importantly they get an opportunity for an hour and a half to hang out in the apartment, chat with me, their classmates, and faculty. It’s wonderful. Having people over to your home changes the dynamic. It’s one thing to talk with students in a classroom or an office, but it’s another thing to be sitting on the couch, balancing a plate of cheese and just talking.

JFB: I wanted to ask about your husband, Miltos, who is the first gentleman of Barnard. Every president relies on her partner to help her. How has he helped you? 

DS: The first four years of my presidency, he stayed in Boston and commuted. So, poor guy, he was running his architectural practice and driving back and forth. I think the happy news is that both of my younger children could have very successful careers as management consultants, because they have dealt on the frontlines with every problem that besieged me. But, thankfully, after four years my husband did move here. He sold his firm and made the decision to come here. He loves going to student performances. He loves the dessert party at our home. He particularly likes talking to the students. Because he is a Greek architect, I think he knows every Greek student and every architecture student, and particularly likes chatting with them.

JFB: You’ve met a lot of our alumnae over your tenure. What feedback do they give you?

DS: Our alumnae, as you can imagine, are a very individualistic lot. The women I’ve met from the ’40s and ’50s, they’re just awesome. They were the pioneers, they were the women who were the first to go to law school, the first to go to medical school. They’re feisty; they’re tough. I’ve loved meeting the older classes.

When you get to the ’60s and the ’70s, you have the revolutionaries. And I think the women that were here during that era, they take their history with them. They are still the fighters. And there is a group of them that are passionately committed to the history and legacy of President McIntosh, and I’ve always been impressed by that—these women, 40 or 50 years later, still see their lives as having been shaped by Mrs. Mac in powerful ways.

When you get into the ’80s, it was a time of more dissatisfaction—the women who were here when Columbia went co-ed. I think you see the greatest variation within that pool. Some of them are firmly committed to Barnard because it didn’t choose to join with Columbia, but there are some who think that that was a mistake. And then, I will confess, my personal favorites are the very young alumnae. I am now at a point where, for the last few years, when I go to the fifth-year reunion class, they are students I know. That’s always a highlight for me.

JFB: I gave a talk at the Radcliffe Institute last week, and I was told that Radcliffe alumnae still come around to the Institute with a real sense of loss and dispiritedness. We’ve avoided that by transforming Barnard into something else within the context of our affiliation with Columbia. How do you imagine the Columbia relationship changing in the future, or are we in a good place?

DS: I think we are in a great place. There have been tough points in the past, and they’re understandable, and I also know that the Barnard-Columbia relationship is wholly idiosyncratic. You can’t put it on a bumper sticker. It will always take an extra sentence to explain what Barnard is, because there is simply nothing else like us. And that’s not a marketing pitch, that’s just fact.

We are a vestige of an older historical relationship, but once you put the complexity aside, I think this specialness is really amazing and priceless, because there is nothing else like us. We are a women’s college connected to an Ivy League research university—it is the best of all possible worlds. Our students and faculty get to be involved in a place that is small and intimate, that’s devoted to its students, where everybody knows your name, but at the same time they can go across the street and have the entire research university world at their fingertips.

JFB: I think that’s actually what convinced me to come here. There are many good arguments for coming to Barnard, but that is an amazing and unique relationship: a small liberal arts college in New York City and yet connected to Columbia.

DS: And just picking up on that, that also means we have the ability to hire an incredible caliber of faculty, because there are a lot of faculty like you who want it both ways, who want to teach really smart students in this 15-person seminar environment and go across the street and be principal investigators on National Science Foundation grants. And you really can’t do that at most other places.

JFB: Let’s talk about faculty development. What are you most proud of on that front?

DS: I inherited a really, really strong faculty, so I haven’t had to do that much work to build the faculty, because it was already very strong. What I’ve had to do was support the faculty at a higher level.

One of the first things I announced at my inauguration was a Presidential Research Award that gave $100,000 a year to support faculty research. I’ve tried to do lots of things like that to support our faculty, who are really hardworking and always pressed for time and money. We created this series of what we call COOL (Committee on Online and on-Campus Learning) funding to support innovative pedagogies. And most crucially, we’ve raised the funds for a large number of endowed faculty chairs. That’s a big deal not just because the funds are important to the College but because a named endowed chair is an important piece of status and support for faculty members.

One of the nicest things I’ve been able to do is call an unsuspecting faculty member into my office—they always get scared when they get called to the president’s office, you know, a vestige of middle school—and I say, “I just wanted to let you know, you are now the such-and-such professor of your discipline.” And people really like to hear that because it’s so meaningful. Usually as a second step we have a little champagne celebration with the newly named faculty member and the person who gave funds for the chair. These are happy moments. 

JFB: Could you talk about the importance of bringing prominent figures to campus such as Wendy Whelan, Twyla Tharp, and Hisham Matar?

DS: It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be able to bring these superstars to campus. It’s one of the advantages of being in New York—there are so many artists, writers, and brilliant people in this city who aren’t necessarily committed to spending their whole life in academia. What we’ve been able to do through the Artist-in-Residence Series and other programs is to bring people like you, people like Hisham, people like Twyla to campus and allow them to maintain their professional lives. Because if we want to bring a brilliant dancer to campus, we don’t want him or her to stop dancing. If we want to bring a brilliant writer to campus, we don’t want him or her to stop writing. So we’ve created a number of these positions where we can invite these incredibly talented people to work with our students and keep active in their chosen profession. And largely we’ve done this in the arts. 

JFB: Where would you like to see the College nine years from now?

DS: I think continuing on this path and being even stronger. Hopefully we’ll continue to get the students we want, the faculty we want, and we have a new curriculum, which will be flourishing and exciting. I think we’ll see faculty members working with new kinds of pedagogy, new kinds of technologies in the classroom, taking advantage of the new building, and hopefully continuing to integrate all the different populations that are part of this campus fully into the community.

JFB: What advice would you give to your successor?

DS: My advice for the new president would be to really figure out—and work with the community to figure out—what she wants her vision to be. I think the College would make a mistake if they hired someone who had the same vision that I did. I think great institutions benefit from change, and I would hope that the new person will come in and be committed to maintaining the really positive things we’ve put in place, but then figure out what else to do, and where the College should be for the next 10 years. 

JFB: Did a musical come to you?

DS: No, but I’m going get back to you on that.

JFB: Well, as a member of the community, may I suggest Beautiful?

DS: Awww, thank you.

JFB: Thank you for talking to us and for all you’ve done for Barnard these last nine years.  

DS: Thank you.

JFB: We’re grateful. 


To listen to audio excerpts of the interview, see below.

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— Photographs by Asiya Khaki '09

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