A Q&A with President-elect Laura A. Rosenbury

President Laura A. Rosenbury standing on a white staircase

From the importance of a women’s college to her favorite song to sing at karaoke, the incoming president sat down with Barnard Magazine to answer a few questions.

What is the importance of a liberal arts education in today’s climate?
From the humanities to the social sciences to the arts and STEM, it’s important to be able to look at issues and problems from all perspectives. There is no significant challenge facing us today that only one discipline can fix or can be handled at the level of policy.

And the value of a college devoted to empowering young women?
There are many examples of the ways gender still mediates interactions and positions of power and privilege. Being part of a community that grapples with that, and examines it, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist, is important.

This past summer, we saw that what many people see as fundamental women’s rights are still up for negotiation and still contested. I’m excited to be joining a community that is concerned about that and wants to continue to ensure that young women have access to a great education that empowers them to go out and change the world.

You’ll be transitioning from a graduate school of law to an undergraduate liberal arts institution. Why the shift?
Undergraduate education is so important at this moment in time, as many are losing faith in a lot of our institutions, in our democracy, and in our ability to connect across differences. In a world that’s being transformed by technology, it is on our college campuses and universities where we can create the conditions for dialogue and prepare young people for engaging in an increasingly complex society.

What excites you most about working with Barnard undergraduates in particular?
Barnard undergraduates have so much energy and passion for making a difference. It’s that passion, that commitment, and that energy that motivates me to ensure our students have the best possible community in which to grow and thrive, while also benefiting from the opportunities created by partnering with an amazing research institution like Columbia. I’m eager to join a college that has such a long history of educating leaders and being a part of this vibrant city.  

What excites you about working with the faculty?
Barnard faculty have a rich tradition of being teacher-scholars, embracing the teaching mission while also doing cutting-edge research on a wide variety of issues, engaging with the most pressing problems of our time. They are absolutely central to the academic excellence of Barnard and to mentoring our students to have a positive impact. I’m excited to get to know more of the faculty, to learn more about their research and how that research informs their pedagogy and their interaction with students.  

You’ve often credited your high school adviser, Mr. Sweeney, for pushing you to go to Harvard, and later, other mentors helped you navigate academia. What have those relationships taught you about the value of one-on-one relationships in running a large organization like Barnard?
Mr. Sweeney taught me that people can often do more than they think they can, particularly young people. When I’m teaching, I have very high expectations for my students. I believe many of them can rise to the challenge and can do way more than they ever thought possible. Whenever possible, I try to connect individually, even if it’s for five or 10 minutes, because one conversation can have a big impact, more than you can ever imagine.

[Harvard Law professor] Martha Minow and, later, Kent Syverud [president of Syracuse University] taught me how to translate that when it’s advocating for an institution in large groups. I try to make a personal connection with groups of students, potential employers, and alums. I’m excited to become that voice for Barnard and galvanize support to make sure everyone knows how amazing our students and alums are.

How has your Midwest background informed your ethics and values today?
It’s hard to separate out my Midwest background from farming and agriculture. My passion for gardening is very much rooted in the family farm and seeing the gardens that my grandmother and mother planted and tended. So I think a lot in terms of the metaphor of planting seeds. When you’re planting a seed, you have no idea when it might take root.

With a student, you plant the seed of an idea, and it might take root that week, it might happen later that semester, or it might be years down the road. But that doesn’t mean the teaching is futile. Instead, it means that all you can do as a professor is to plant those seeds and cultivate them. Then it’s up to each student and their circumstances that determines how those seeds grow.

Sometimes I tend to get a little impatient, and thinking about gardening helps me with that too. One of my favorite sayings is “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We must acknowledge that there’s constant evolution. I think that’s true of organizations as well, even though sometimes change or innovation can be a long process. Thinking about the possibilities and what might happen if we experiment is rooted in the garden and my Midwest upbringing as well.

Fundamentally, how do you approach “the work”?
I love to hear what’s on people’s minds and to think about ways that I can empower them to do even more than they’re currently doing. I have a very collaborative, open door policy. I thrive on working as part of a team, figuring out what any given department, student group, or faculty member needs, then providing them with the resources to be empowered to continue on their chosen path.

So ... what’s on your nightstand now?
A book by Mick Herron, a British mystery and thriller novelist. He wrote the “Slow Horses” series.

What are you watching?
I just finished Daisy Jones and the Six.

What are you listening to?
Thelonious Monk.

Favorite dish to cook?
Rhubarb peach pie.

Favorite vacation destination?

Favorite song to sing at karaoke?
“Dancing Queen.”

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