History professor Robert A. McCaughey is an expert on all things Barnard. He is at work on a history of the College and, in honor of its 125th anniversary, assembled an eye-catching interactive timeline.
Showcased on the special 125th anniversary website, it chronciles the formation and development, as well as the challenges and triumphs, of the first college in New York City where women could pursue the same calibre of education available to men. A movable feast of the College’s history, the interactive timeline combines key dates and events along with stunning archival images. (Make sure you check out the 3D option in the left-hand corner of the timeline!)
He's also been offering a 125th anniversary lecture series.
McCaughey, the Janet H. Robb Chair in the Social Sciences and cochair of the Barnard125 steering committee, also authored Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754–2004 (Columbia University Press, 2003) to mark the university’s 250th anniversary in 2004; in June 2014, Columbia University Press also published McCaughey’s history of the Columbia engineering school. Both his teaching and research include the histories of American colleges and universities.
McCaughey grew up in Pawtucket, R.I., and attended the University of Rochester on a Naval ROTC scholarship. After being a chemical engineering major for “all of three weeks,” he switched to an undergraduate honors program in history, earning a master’s in American studies at the University of North Carolina. McCaughey began teaching naval history during his navy service and ultimately earned his doctorate at Harvard.
Through his research, and as an eyewitness, during his lengthy career, to one of the most tumultuous periods in Columbia and Barnard’s history, McCaughey is deeply knowledgeable about both institutions.
Below are headlines from the Barnard timeline, and a discussion with Prof. McCaughey on how they intersected with McCaughey's own career.
April 1968—Over 700 Columbia students are arrested following police clearing of five occupied Columbia buildings. One hundred fifteen Barnard students among those arrested
In September 1969, McCaughey began teaching at Barnard. New to New York City and with a young family, he came to a campus that was still unsettled from the turbulent events of the previous year. “Faculty, students, and administrators were still sorting out ‘What side of the barricade were you on? Do my friendships endure?’” he recalls. “It was a tricky time for somebody coming in who wanted to become part of the community as quickly as possible.
“In a sense, there were strains in that community,” he continues. “It was pretty raw here...students were on edge. I went three straight years without finishing an academic year in a normal fashion.”
Assistant professors had a heavy teaching load; McCaughey kept his head down and soldiered on. In 1975, he received tenure, which provided a sense of security. He was teaching at both Barnard and Columbia (mostly graduate courses), finding his work very satisfying.
(Photo above: Police activity on Columbia's campus)
November 1975—Jacquelyn Mattfeld, provost of Brown University, named Barnard’s fourth president. Arrives on campus February 1976
Mattfeld’s presidency lasted only four years, but it was a challenging time. With pressure on Barnard to merge with Columbia College, tensions ran high. “No question in my mind that most Barnard faculty were very dubious of the consequences for faculty of a merger,” McCaughey says. “There were probably 30 or 40 Barnard faculty who were teaching a sufficient amount at Columbia; should a merger take place it would have less impact on them than on other folks. That made for strains in the faculty.”
May 1980—Mattfeld resigns under fire from trustees; board appoints Ellen Futter ’71 as acting president. Trustees give Futter the position, making her the country's youngest college president.
“She’d been involved in some of the major committees (as a trustee since 1972) and knew the players,” explains McCaughey. “Also, she was close enough in [age] to the students to have some legitimate claim to being representative of that generation.” As president, Futter successfully saw the College through the period of readjustment after Columbia College went coed. She garnered support from faculty and students and transitioned Barnard into a new era.
July 1987—Robert A. McCaughey, a member of Barnard history department since 1969, named dean of the faculty.
“What was terrific about being dean was I got to know many more faculty than I would have otherwise,” he says. “I’d been [founding] director of the first-year seminar program and I got to meet a large number of faculty in the social sciences and humanities outside of my own department and the neighboring offices in Lehman.” McCaughey also received the Emily Gregory Teaching Excellence Award in l987.
“As dean, I got to know the science faculty and the folks in the arts in a way that I hadn’t, and that most of us don’t if we’re not in those fields. That was a terrific opportunity. I came away especially impressed with the commitment on the part of science faculty to teach in a liberal arts college.” He explains that a historian such as himself can function at diverse institutions, and that working with graduate students has positives and negatives. However, since science faculty members typically rely on graduate students and postdoctoral students for research, working at an institution without them can be decidedly different. “Barnard’s been blessed with [science] faculty who have maintained a research agenda but have been able to meet the expectations of an undergraduate college in terms of commitment of time and energy to students,” he notes.
It was also possible as dean to help Barnard flourish in the years following Columbia College’s becoming a coeducational institution. In 1993, McCaughey decided to step down from the position of dean and return to full- time teaching.While he has gladly taught Columbia students over the past two decades, he has done so exclusively on the Barnard campus.
With other faculty members in the history department teaching most of the courses he’d taught before becoming dean, McCaughey sought new topics. He decided on American maritime history, which suited him well since he’d served in the navy and is an avid sailor.While the field is a fairly small one, its impact on historical events is quite extraordinary. “If you’re doing early-American history, which I taught spring semester, you cannot begin to understand the Colonial experience without emphasizing the maritime dimension of it from Georgia up to the province of Maine,” he says, adding that “[NewYork City] remains one of the great centers of maritime commerce.”There is even a direct tie-in to Columbia, as Low Memorial Library and Schermerhorn Hall are named for families whose wealth came from shipping.
McCaughey also served three terms as chair of Barnard’s history department. He is pleased that the department is vastly more diverse in subject matter and personnel than it was 45 years ago when he joined the faculty. “The diversity was facilitated by a commitment to [expand] the regional coverage to become global,” he says. “At Barnard, it’s been a rather quiet but important change.”
October 2014—Students, faculty, alumnae, and community members celebrate Founders Day in honor of the College's 125th anniversary. In honor, a stretch of Broadway is renamed Barnard Way.
The occasion of the 125th anniversary calls for a bit of reflection. McCaughey would like the anniversary to stimulate interest in Barnard’s history.There are plans for an upcoming course in which students will write about the College. “A birthday becomes an occasion to reexamine, to look again, to take a fresh peek at what we were,” he says. “I think we’re in a confident enough position to take that kind of look.”
McCaughey has organized aworkshop, Making Barnard History, for administrators, alumnae, and faculty (both active and retired), and one of the topics he’s tackling is “how Barnard slipped the merger noose.” He explains: “It seems to me there were very few institutions that managed to pull off what Barnard pulled off in the late ’70s/early ’80s: maintain a relationship with a great university—that relationship going back almost 100 years at the time—and yet not only retain its autonomy, but be in a better position to assert its distinctiveness in the subsequent years.
“My own reading of the situation is that the relationship with that vast university is about as healthy at this moment as it has been at any time in the 125 years,” he continues. “On both sides of the issue—the autonomy and the relationship—somehow we seem to have pulled it off.” He pauses. “Subject to tomorrow’s events.”
—By Lois Elfman; Photographs courtesy of Barnard Archives; Prof. McCaughey photo by Juliana Sohn; Barnard Way photo by Skyler Reid