“You’re very... Barnard.”
This is a sentiment I hear often—I think it has something to do with my affinity for turtlenecks, soy milk, and the liberal arts. And I do, in a sense, feel “very Barnard,” what with my Google Drive full of essays about women in Chinese literature and my current suite full of women who walk around naked as they wait for their lentils to finish microwaving.
But I don’t feel this way all the time. As a matter of fact, lately, I’ve been finding it difficult to feel close to Barnard at all. My list of evidence is long: I’m completing my senior thesis through Columbia’s East Asian Languages and Cultures department. When I look back on my time here, I realize that I pulled more all-nighters for something called the Columbia Daily Spectator than I did for any of my Barnard classes. I keep forgetting to have my finger measured for my class ring (sorry, Mom). And last week, I slept through my senior photo appointment (again, sorry, Mom).
Even when I disagreed with her—and I disagreed with her often—Barnard President Debora Spar has felt like an inseparable part of my experience here. Spar is, of course, white, well-heeled, and extremely well-educated. She hails from a corporate strain of feminism that I have no interest in allying with. But despite all of my reservations about Spar, the looming arrival of her official departure has only exacerbated my feeling of alienation from Barnard.
When I first arrived at Barnard, I mostly worried about my mental health and finding a community here. Now, as a graduating senior, I worry about leaving Barnard weighed down by resentment—not about the accomplishments I wish I had garnered here, but about the knowledge that the Barnard I knew from 2013 to 2017 won’t exist after I graduate.
None of this is Spar’s fault. Still, her departure is just one float in an ongoing parade of changes at Barnard. By the time news of her departure broke in November, the magnolia tree was a dead, decaying fire hazard, and there was a strange, foreign building being erected in the middle of campus.
Perhaps the distance I’ve placed between myself and Barnard has been a subconscious product of all of these changes. Maybe I’ve been spending less time on campus because I know that in a year or so, Barnard’s new library building (and new crop of students who have no idea who I am!) will render it somewhat unrecognizable to me.
Or so I thought.
Change has always been a part of Barnard’s heritage. Since 1889, Barnard has represented opportunity. But the opportunities Barnard offered the women of the 19th century were made available simply because no other options existed for them at the time. As more universities became coeducational, Barnard had to contend with an uncomfortable question: “Why should we continue to exist?”
I used to, and sometimes still do, resent this question. I believe that ideally—and perhaps idealistically—no one should ever have to defend their alma mater’s right to exist. But Barnard’s constant engagement with the question of its right to exist also means that it has frequently revised itself, revised its image, to ensure its continuing salience among institutions of higher learning.
Evidence of Barnard’s evolution is scattered throughout its campus. After (way too many) years of debate and bureaucratic hand-wringing, transgender women can attend Barnard. The huge bronze “B” that marks the walkway from Barnard’s main gate at Broadway and 117th Street to Barnard Hall was only installed three years ago as a part of a masterfully curated rebranding campaign. Even the Diana Center is a relatively new addition to Barnard’s campus—it opened in 2010 as a replacement to the MacIntosh Center (students also used to call it “The Vag,” which proves that most women must endure brutal name-calling before entering the Pantheon of Successful Ladies).
Spar has been the constant variable amid all of these changes, despite her relatively short tenure—but now, she’s leaving. This might feel especially jarring because Judith Shapiro, Barnard’s last president, was famous for spending a fourteen-year “marathon tenure” here. But length of Spar’s tenure aside, it’s okay to feel lost. It’s okay if the future feels more blurry than strong, bold, or beautiful.
Institutions aren’t people. In order to mitigate this fact, it’s human nature to assign faces to institutions. We latch on to icons in order to prove to ourselves that certain things have value. In a political climate riddled with uncertainty, we might feel the need to swaddle ourselves in the calming aura of a single leader.
Barnard, it is imperative that we don’t.
Spar’s departure does not mean Barnard, the Barnard I spent four years happily stomping (and occasionally skipping) around, is over. If you take away the carved mermaid from the prow of a ship, it should continue to cruise—as long as there’s wind in its sails.
And as for me feeling distant from Barnard? I think I may have been on the receiving end of an act of divine intervention. Last Tuesday, I slid out of bed and into a pair of dress slacks so I could attend the annual Tow Foundation Dinner. I sat at table three, where a sparkling set of tableware adorned with whole wheat rolls awaited me. When I looked to my left, my neighbor greeted me.
It was Debora Spar. Of course.
Paulina Mangubat is a Barnard senior majoring in political science and East Asian studies. She is a former editorial page editor for Spectator and the former president of Columbia University Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Paulina Please Stop Being Extra runs alternate Mondays—except when it doesn’t, because she can’t predict the news cycle.
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