While each Barnard president has had her own unique vision for the college, Sian Beilock’s plan, which she outlined at her inauguration last Friday, signals a return to traditional Barnard values that were not a primary focus during the administration of former president Debora Spar.
The shift, as noted in Beilock’s speech, will direct more attention toward emphasizing Barnard’s liberal arts message and moving the college from a global to a local perspective.
Beilock, who is Barnard’s eighth president, began her tenure in July following the unexpected departure of Spar to Lincoln Center, where she currently serves as president and CEO.
Beilock acknowledged her three most recent predecessors—Spar, Judith Shapiro, and Ellen Futter, BC ’71—who were all in attendance at Friday’s event, and noted the unique nature of each of their presidencies, expressing gratitude that she has inherited the college in a stable financial state.
“I have managed to arrive at a time when Barnard is in excellent shape,” Beilock said. “From Ellen Futter, who really turned this place around when its future as an autonomous institution was in doubt, to Judith Shapiro, who inherited the College on the upswing and brought it even higher in terms of selectivity, faculty, and endowment. And most recently, Debora Spar, who helped us raise record dollars for our newest building and other critical ventures. None of their tenures were fully predictable, but each made tremendous strides to propel the College forward.”
Beilock went on to note that there are “different leaders for different times,” before identifying the four main goals for her presidency: continuing to focus on science as essential to a liberal arts education, engaging with Harlem, Morningside Heights, and the larger New York City community, championing ongoing diversity and inclusion initiatives, and providing more comprehensive resources to ensure students’ success after graduation.
The plan differs dramatically from Spar’s, which focused on three points: broadening Barnard’s presence abroad, increasing financial support for faculty research, and supporting student leadership initiatives.
These objectives were later confirmed in Spar’s formal strategic plan released in 2011. The plan sought to elevate Barnard over the next decade by “leveraging the College’s superb teacher-scholar model,” “enhancing the College’s distinctive community,” and “extending the College’s reach and reputation.”
Over her nine-year tenure, Spar accomplished some of these goals through the creation of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, which began offering leadership programs for students in 2009, and the Global Symposia, an annual international conference hosted by the college to discuss women’s leadership and entrepreneurship on a global scale. During this time, Spar also significantly grew the college’s endowment through her $400 million capital fundraising campaign The Bold Standard.
But faculty have reflected on Spar’s tenure as a time during which Barnard lost its sense of direction and was distanced from its original mission as a liberal arts college in the city of New York.
“Spar had this idea that Barnard was going to become a household name in São Paulo. It was part of her idea of glamour,” professor of history Deborah Valenze said. “But I get the sense that Beilock has a sense of the obligation that an institution as privileged as Barnard has to give back to its neighboring communities.”
Beilock suggested that she will pay special attention to Barnard’s relationship with Harlem and Morningside Heights and take steps similar to those she instituted at the University of Chicago. As the university’s executive vice provost, she oversaw UChicago Urban, an interdisciplinary consortium that seeks to connect university members with the broader Chicago area.
Professor of history Robert McCaughey agreed with Valenze and said that Beilock echoes Shapiro in her decision to focus on Barnard’s role in the city.
“[Debora Spar] spent more time abroad than in Queens or Harlem so it may be a return to local focus with Beilock,” McCaughey said. “I find it encouraging because I think that’s something that Barnard needs to do regularly.”
McCaughey and Valenze also said that Beilock’s emphasis on the importance of the liberal arts also mirrors Shapiro, who in her inaugural address focused on the need for a liberal arts education to prepare students to “move cultural boundaries.”
Last January, following the announcement of Spar’s departure, faculty members explicitly requested that the next president be both a distinguished academic and a seasoned fundraiser committed to prioritizing the liberal arts and humanities.
According to Valenze, while Spar was a skilled fundraiser and came from an academic background, she neglected the liberal arts. Beilock, a distinguished cognitive psychologist with a fundraising track record at UChicago, successfully fulfills both of the faculty’s requests.
“[Beilock] listens carefully and respects the humanities and sees that as part of the whole student. She immediately got what Barnard was about,” Valenze said. “Even at the first faculty meeting she was at she was able to speak in a way that represented the larger intellectual project of this place and we hadn’t heard that for nine years.”