Each morning that fall, I trudged up the stone stairs of Morningside Park with my 16-year-old son. He was lonely in his new school, missing the father who had to stay behind during these early days of our move, and perplexed by the economic upheaval he half-saw around him. During these walks, I tried to explain the technicalities to him as best I could: Leveraged financial markets. Residential mortgage-backed securities. Mostly, though, I urged him to watch, and to pay attention. Because the world was changing, and it was his responsibility to take notes and to start figuring out what he could do, some day, to set that world on a better tack.
Today, eight and a half years later, the world feels topsy-turvy again. The election that was supposed to be has passed its proponents by, and the glass ceiling that was promised to be shattered looks colder and more forbidding than ever before. I am leaving now rather than coming, faced with the fears not only of my own now-older children but also of the 2,600 young women I think of, still, as mine. My Barnard students, going out into a world that feels more threatening than anything they can recall. A world that is now calling into question many of the concerns and causes they see as rightfully theirs. Reproductive rights. Social justice. Gender equality and economic mobility and the preservation of an ever more fragile ecosystem.
I feel the weight of these times, along with the added pressure of knowing that I will be moving down Broadway with a number of projects still ongoing: the steel on our new teaching and learning center is still rising; the capital campaign has not fully reached its ambitious goal; and our task forces on diversity and divestment have just completed their recommendations. But there is never a good time to leave a job as complex as this College’s president, or to start it anew. Every president will inherit an era marked by its own traumas and uncertainties, its own hopes and dreams and perils. The challenge is to make sense of whatever era you inhabit and then to build something meaningful upon it.
Recently, the great Israeli novelist Amos Oz was asked to comment on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Instead, he reportedly swatted the question away, answering simply, “I’m an old man, and I’ve seen a lot and I know that even when you think history is over, it’s not over.”
I’m not quite as old as Oz, nor have I witnessed the same broad swath of history. But I know enough to promise that everything Barnard stands for, and has fought for, is far from over as well. Women’s education is as important today as it has ever been, and the call for women’s empowerment has never been more urgent or more important. We need to continue to fight for social justice, for climate justice, for the rights of the dispossessed and for women—and men—living across a broader range of sexual and gender identities. We need to stand for our sisters of color, for freedoms of speech and religion. And we need to fight always from our particular perch of strength—the strength of wisdom and knowledge, of the power that comes from scholarship and research and the perpetual search for truth.
It has been my honor, and my pleasure, to be part of this extraordinary community. I leave now, metaphorically, as I arrived: walking with a younger generation, humbled by a tumultuous time, and climbing hopefully toward that College on a hilltop.