I like clean numbers and grades. And when I was a senior in high school, I was hoping for a complete set of college acceptance letters. But we can’t always get what we want. I was one school short: Barnard rejected me.
The most immediate response is incredulity and citation of admissions rates. It is this frightfully reductionist mentality that the only difference between a Columbia College/School of Engineering and Applied Science and Barnard education is one of respective admissions processes. We can see this displayed by former Spectator editorial page editor Lanbo Zhang in “Why not merge?” (April 18). He delivers yet another jarring example of the divisive mind-set that continues to plague women on both sides of the street with uninformed arguments for a merge. Zhang describes single-sex university education as “rhetoric” and “incidental” and displays an inability to “see how the substance of a Barnard education necessarily differs from a Columbia College one,” as he “can’t for the life of me figure out how the social life could be so different on the other side of the street.” Many students—male and female alike—fall into the unfortunate trap of assuming that a CC/SEAS education is the singular pinnacle of academic aspiration. I have heard the not infrequent scoff of undiscerning first-years that Barnard is a “backdoor” to a Columbia education. This scoff, when not confronted, develops into published opinions such as Zhang’s, perpetuates comment threads (a coward’s battlefield of entitlement), and erupts in full-fledged ignorance campaigns (Obamanard).
Zhang’s whitewashed assumptions simply do not align with my belief in Barnard as an institution and an environment. He implies that taking similar classes, while enrolled in separate schools, yields a similar education. Unfortunately, he throws around the word “education” without distinction, ignoring the separate-but-intertwined contexts of a classroom education and an education that occurs beyond the walls of Barnard Hall or Milbank. It is in the latter that we find the Athena Film Festival, the Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, numerous initiatives from faculty, and student services such as Well-Woman, and an incredibly invested and responsive alumnae network. These out-of-the-classroom opportunities are the unshakeable pillar of the Barnard experience. They “address issues of gender in all of their complexity and urgency.” according to the Barnard mission statement. In empowering women to withstand and overcome a society that either overtly denies or more subtly dismisses them, Barnard holds a singular advantage.
As a dancer, I am in Barnard Hall frequently. My closest friends are Barnard students, and I hold them as perhaps the largest influence on my personal growth and education of the “higher” variety. I could cite their unfettered curiosity, strength of character, and intelligence. But above all, they have an ever-growing awareness of their responsibility in confronting and overcoming social disparities particular to women. If I had known the people I know today (and if I had been accepted to Barnard), my decision would have been much more difficult. In the end, I would have still accepted Columbia’s offer, and I feel strongly that I made the right decision in coming to Columbia. But I feel as strongly that Barnard has played a large role in my education, both personal and academic. I cannot overemphasize the influence that Barnard’s institutional aims have had on me and many other Columbia women.
Zhang casually suggests having a separate women’s college only celebrates a history of sexism. He writes that Barnard is the result of “the separate history of the two schools, because at one point in time, Columbia didn’t see it fit to accept women.” While it is true that women’s colleges emerged in order to provide higher education to a socially minimized population, it certainly cannot be argued that women’s colleges are no longer relevant or that gender disparities are resolved now that women can attend the majority of higher education institutions. Barnard ensures that research on and advocacy for gender equality continues on the forefront. It is unquestionable that the strength and poignancy of such discussion would falter if the dialogue’s semi-autonomy was reduced. If there were no Barnard and no Barnard women, I do not believe that Columbia could have afforded me those same emphatic perspectives. Barnard continues to justify its existence as an independent undergraduate school alongside Columbia College because it offers a fundamentally different education and environment from Columbia College.
Without a doubt, Barnard is in financial straits. Zhang uses the reconstruction of Lehman Hall as the basis for his argumentative strategy, a tactic that might soon appear in an attempt to dilute Barnard into Columbia’s system once and for all. How quickly a discussion of Barnard’s financial concerns can become a question of the value of single-sex educations at large. (Students and administrators alike, beware!) There are many difficulties ahead, but the institutional beauty of Barnard is that it is built to resist such a submissive shortcut as a merge, which is a dismissal of the casual sexism, degrading stereotyping and frankly disgusting entitlement that tries to justify itself with admissions rates. A merge will not solve the other-side-of-the-street problem once and for all. It will only enable the underlying attitudes. Barnard must continue to “help students achieve the personal strength that will enable them to meet the challenges they will encounter throughout their lives.” Barnard must remain separate so that challenges such as Zhang’s indiscriminate slog of superficial conceptions are repelled institutionally.
I hope you take my rejection as proof that an education at Columbia College, as much as I have appreciated my academic experience there, and one at Barnard have distinct aspects and aims. Paradoxically, these factors are accessible to women at all of the Columbia undergraduate schools, but only on the condition that Barnard retains its autonomous identity in our collective Columbia community.
In Barnard we trust.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.