Portrait of President Sian Beilock

As I sit down and write this letter, we are just a month away from the start of classes. It has been my priority from day one to ensure that we can do so safely. And during these summer months, I’ve worked closely with Barnard’s dedicated faculty and staff to devise a plan that is flexible and provides a meaningful academic experience that engages students in new and creative ways.

The current moment, in particular, has demanded more of us — not only in the intricacies of logistical planning but in our pedagogical approach. It has required us to ask ourselves hard questions and to come up with novel solutions. I am reminded of the conversation I had with Stacey Abrams in late May, which kicked off our virtual discussion series, Insights: Powered by Barnard. Abrams recounted her historic run as the first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States. As she spoke candidly about her narrow, though disappointing, loss, I was struck by her words that followed: “Meet adversity and meet challenges not by pretending it doesn’t exist, but by acknowledging it, by excavating it to find what lessons can be learned and what opportunities are hidden beneath all the sorrow.”

With this in mind, the question that I have posed to myself and to my colleagues that has driven our collective efforts and thinking about Barnard’s mission in the year ahead is: How can we invite our students — guided by faculty and supported by the institution — to bring their knowledge to bear, as problem solvers and innovators, to address the pressing issues we face today concerning systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic?

Working collaboratively across disciplines, we’ve mapped out an academic and co-curricular experience that will focus on the historic challenges confronting society today. All first-years will take part in a new course, Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020, that will include a series of lectures by prominent thought leaders who will offer insight and context to the social, political, and ecological upheavals generated by our country’s injustices and the COVID-19 pandemic. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors will have the chance to probe these issues in courses across the curriculum and within their majors.

The crises we face need vision and inspired solutions. That’s why we are calling on students not only to think critically about the “big problems” of today but to work in tandem with their peers, professors, and practitioners to take action — whether that means engaging their local government or community based organizations or initiating projects through ThirdSpace@Barnard, a new, virtual co-curricular program.

Without a doubt, Barnard students are already doing this hard work and contributing their brainpower to make a difference in their communities. Just this week, Shannon Hui ’22 and her teammates were selected as the winners in the young adult category of the Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge competition, launched by the Van Alen Institute, which challenged people to rethink the iconic bridge’s walkway. The team’s entry considered how to redesign this overcrowded public space during the COVID-19 pandemic to accommodate social distancing while preserving the bridge’s history and honoring the city’s diversity. And when Amanda Taylor ’22 noticed that medical journals and educational resources far too often left out the stories of Black women, she founded The Unplug Collective, a publication that provides a platform for women of color to share their stories of mental, emotional, and physical health. She credits Professor Manijeh Moradian’s course Practicing Intersectionality for teaching her “the power that writing has in preventing people who are unseen and unheard from being erased from history.”

Our curriculum is designed to foster this very activism and civic engagement. Learning itself, especially now, must be proactive. And for students to become effective changemakers, we need to talk across the divides. In my recent conversation with Netflix’s VP of Inclusion Strategy Vernā Myers ’82, we discussed the important steps we can all take to overcome and mend the fracturing that can happen among different groups and within social movements. When there were incidents of anti-Semitism on social media this summer, Myers hosted a #SolidaritySunday event on Black-Jewish relations. At Barnard, we must seek out this kind of open dialogue, inviting members of our community with diverse perspectives and experiences to come together to explore difficult issues and find common ground. As Myers put it: “How do we for once not fight over the crumbs but create an entirely different pie where there is enough dignity and respect and equality and opportunity for everyone?”

When we return to campus this fall, students will be asked to explore new intellectual experiences and to put their ideas into action to effect lasting change. This year has certainly illuminated the need for such resourceful and original thinkers, and I know that Barnard women are up to the task.

Video chat screen
In their conversation during the virtual discussion series Insights: Powered by Barnard, President Beilock and Stacey Abrams discuss opportunities for growth and learning in times of crisis.
Latest IssueSpring 2023