Beginning at Barnard

By Sian Leah Beilock

If you were with me now in my Milbank office, you would see that there are still boxes of books to unpack and piles of papers to manage. I am, after all, just settling in. I imagine that you would also sense my tremendous joy and enthusiasm in joining Barnard as its new president. Boxes and papers aside, I am very happy to be here.

As alumnae, you are the story of Barnard, so I don’t have to tell you that this is a unique and impressive place—a place that I am just beginning to know. In the months to come, I hope to learn about the ins and outs of the College from you and hear about your Barnard experiences. I look forward to meeting you and to greeting the students—both new and returning—who will soon arrive on campus.

I am privileged to join a community with an unwavering tradition of excellence in the liberal arts, and with a talented faculty and staff for whom the education of exceptional young women lies at the heart of what they do. I can’t think of a more important time to be at such a powerful place where diversity of opinions, lived experiences, and ideas are not only valued but at the heart of the curriculum—because frankly, this diversity makes everyone’s thinking better. Add to that Barnard’s bond with New York City and its relationship with Columbia, and you have a distinctive formula for greatness.

I had powerful role models to lean on and, looking back, I am struck by how my interactions with women, in particular, shaped my path.


Since I am new to many of you, I thought I would use this first column to introduce myself and tell you a bit about my work—work that I see as dovetailing with Barnard’s mission.

I have been a faculty member at the University of Chicago for over a decade and in the provost’s office for the last several years. As executive vice provost, I focused on enhancing University of Chicago’s research and educational mission. One interdisciplinary initiative looked at the University’s relationship to the great metropolis right outside my door. We partnered with civic and community leaders to tackle complex questions facing cities, and we asked those same leaders to help educate our students about the diverse social contexts in which they live and study. I have already seen some of what Barnard’s faculty is doing to reach beyond classroom walls and build the best possible relationship between the College and the city, and I am excited to consider with them how to map out Barnard’s next chapter as a leading urban institution.

In my own research as a cognitive scientist, I also think about urban settings—especially urban schooling—and I work to ensure that all people can perform to their potential. I ask questions such as: What are the brain and body factors that influence learning and performance? What types of psychological tools can help people perform at their best? I study activities ranging from test taking and public speaking to athletics and any other venture where there’s a possibility of “choking” under pressure. I use brain imaging technology, the stress hormones in saliva, and other measures to understand how we can put our best foot forward when the stakes are highest. I have been especially interested in success in math and science for women and girls and how anxiety can derail our performance and influence our pursuit of particular academic and career paths. I want to know what we can do to ensure that everyone has the tools to perform up to their potential, especially when it matters most.

I have to admit I do a little “me-search” in my “research.” I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and was an avid athlete with an interest in math and science. I was always intent on doing my best and was curious about why I sometimes sailed (and sometimes failed) when the pressure was on. I had powerful role models to lean on and, looking back, I am struck by how my interactions with women, in particular, shaped my path. I look forward to bringing my work as a scholar and teacher to this important new role—and to helping ensure that the young women of Barnard have the tools and knowledge to pursue their passions, whatever they may be.

I have read about the part that bright and bold Annie Nathan Meyer played in Barnard’s founding and the special brand of wisdom that Millicent McIntosh imparted when she was at the helm. And I am exceedingly grateful for the creative and vital contributions that Debora Spar made during her nine-year tenure as president. Without all who came before me, Barnard would not be what it is today. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Rob Goldberg, who skillfully and seamlessly served as interim president and did so much to help usher me in.

And I thank you in advance. I hope that our paths will cross soon, that we will engage in conversation and exchange ideas, and that you will stay close to Barnard as its future unfolds. I look forward to it all.

— Photograph by Jason Smith/University of Chicago

Latest IssueSpring 2022

In this issue, you'll read about the New York governor's deputy chief of staff Linda Sun '06, a student-led mission to study bacteria in space, the alums leading the way in the sustainable flower movement, and more.