Senior rower Skyler Samuelson is used to waking up very early in the morning.
For practices, Samuelson and her teammates trek to Overpeck County Park in New Jersey, often braving the cold to get valuable time on the water. But once Samuelson, a Barnard student, returns to campus, she is often greeted with genuine confusion from her peers who don’t have much of an understanding of the intense commitment that is required of a Division I athlete.
Samuelson is a Barnard student-athlete, one of 30 attending the women’s college that compete on Columbia teams. Of the 313 women currently participating in varsity sports at Columbia, only 9.6 percent of those athletes attend Barnard, while Barnard students comprise approximately 47 percent of the female undergraduate population. Numbers have plummeted in recent years—Columbia rosters had as many as 81 Barnard athletes in the fall of 2002.
While Samuelson and her fellow Barnard athletes are few in number, this is only a small indicator of the issues within the Columbia-Barnard athletics consortium, a financial agreement that allows for students attending Barnard to participate at the Division I level, making it the only women’s college to offer Division I athletics. According to current Senior Associate Athletic Director Jacqueline Blackett, the agreement was initially ratified in 1983 and was most recently reapproved in 1996. Though the consortium is up for renewal in 2018, it has not been renegotiated in nearly 21 years, rendering it outdated for the current needs of the college’s female athletes.
While the consortium was intended to serve as a bridge to create a thriving women’s athletics program between Columbia and Barnard, Barnard’s role within the consortium has changed over time from being a primary contributor to a back-seat observer. This is best contextualized by the decline in student-athletes participating on Columbia teams that attend Barnard and slack interest among its students and community.
Furthermore, as the number of Barnard athletes has steadily dropped, a 2005 Spectator report revealed that Barnard pays half of the consortium’s operating cost, independent of the number of the school’s athletes. Since the consortium was last renewed in 1996, Barnard’s contribution has likely not changed despite a decline in numbers of Barnard athletes.
Though the consortium has not been revised, Barnard and Columbia have been in discussions regarding the consortium’s role in the greater intercorporate agreement between the two institutions. Specifically, in 2010, Barnard released a self-assessment known as the “Middle States Assessment,” which referenced a “particularly volatile and contentious” disagreement in “athletics participation” regarding Barnard’s monetary share in the Barnard-Columbia intercorporate agreement.
Barnard and Columbia will likely have to revisit those issues discussed in 2010 when the consortium comes up for renewal in 2018, led by the new Barnard president.
Lost in plain sight
For any prospective athlete who may be interested in attending Barnard, there is little to no information on either Columbia Athletics or Barnard’s websites discussing the intricacies of the consortium.
And for athletes who are already competing for the Lions, public rosters operated by Columbia Athletics do not include school designations for athletes—a loophole in NCAA stipulations that only mandates that printed literature include designations for each school in the consortium.
The fact that Columbia Athletics has not included these designations on its rosters makes determining how many athletes attend Barnard virtually impossible. Additionally, Barnard and Columbia’s athletics departments were unable to come to a consensus on how many current athletes were Barnard students.
To determine the current number of Barnard athletes, Spectator cross-checked the official Columbia Athletics online rosters with the Columbia-Barnard student directory.
When Spectator reached out to Barnard Public Relations to verify the exact number of Barnard athletes participating in sports, a spokesperson said the number was 40, not 30, but declined to release specific names. Columbia Athletics did not disclose an official number.
This lack of consensus, coupled with the absence of school designations on rosters, could impact a recruit’s ability to understand the consortium model.
”[If] they [a prospective athlete] feel that Barnard’s role is minimized or limited, then certainly that could have an impact,” Barnard Dean Avis Hinkson, BC ’84, said.
However, in the months since Spectator’s interview with Hinkson, a spokesperson for Barnard clarified that Columbia Athletics’ head of communications assured Hinkson that the designation would begin to appear on rosters in fall 2017.
An athletic community
But independent of Barnard’s financial contribution, a majority of Barnard athletes noted that very little community exists among the 30 Barnard athletes. Sophomore coxswain Bella Zionts, who competes on the Columbia lightweight rowing team—a team of male rowers that won a National Championship a year ago—expressed excitement about potentially meeting other Barnard athletes.
“I think it would be so great to get to know other Barnard athletes,” Zionts said. “I actually just found out that someone on the women’s team goes to Barnard, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea, that’s so cool.’ Because there aren’t that many of us, it’s definitely a unique experience.”
Blackett told Spectator that there had been various efforts in the past to bring Barnard athletes together, but admitted that athletes’ busy schedules have made events as simple as an ice cream social difficult to schedule.
These events, according to Blackett, would be meaningful for every Barnard athlete, but perhaps more impactful for those like Zionts, who compete on a team with virtually no women, let alone Barnard students.
A notable exception to this is the fencing team, where junior Katie Angen is one of six Barnard athletes. While there may not be many Barnard athletes in general, Angen said that the prominence of Barnard fencers has alleviated the potential isolation of a lone Barnard athlete on a larger team.
“It just seems like not a big deal, because there are so many of us [Barnard fencers],” Angen said. “There’s less discomfort, for sure, because there are more Barnard athletes on the fencing team.”
Hinkson offered a different opinion, articulating that while Barnard had attempted to hold Barnard-specific events for athletes in the past, in her mind, the consensus felt otherwise.
“I think we tried doing just the Barnard athletes. It’s been a few years, but I think we got the sense that there was the feeling that it should be female athletes,” Hinkson said. “There was an interest or may well be a speaker or something that you want to do, but the women felt like they were together in that, and if Barnard was going to do something, then the female athletes should be together in that.”
Hinkson said she would be open to suggestions to help create a tighter bond among Barnard athletes, such as through the ice cream social that Blackett proposed.
A rooted relationship
Despite the aforementioned issues, Barnard athletes have been a critical part of the fabric of the Columbia University athletic community throughout the consortium era.
When Columbia College made the decision to go coed in 1983, it was the last school in the Ivy League to do so. According to Spectator reporting at the time, many Barnard administrators worried that the school’s admissions pool would thin, without even considering athletics.
Columbia’s athletic community is more of a niche—it is not a Big 10 or SEC school. Caught in the middle of New York City, Columbia’s athletic success was unfounded, and the then-all men’s program struggled up and down its rosters to churn out victories.
Across the street, Barnard had already competed for eight years at the Division III level, though it was met with limited engagement from the greater Barnard community.
“It was a challenge for many of our athletic teams to get a fan base developed,” former Barnard Athletic Director Marjorie Greenberg Tversky said. “We certainly didn’t have the staffing to be promoting, and be able to do marketing efforts, and giveaways, and different incentives for people to come to athletic contests.”
At the time, Barnard had eight teams, and its rosters consisted of mostly walk-ons, offering spots for School of Engineering and Applied Science and School of General Studies women on its teams as well. But in the wake of the announcement that Columbia College would accept women, Tversky, former Barnard Associate Athletics Director Merry Ormsby, and the late, then-Columbia Athletic Director Al Paul worked together to form an agreement that would help merge the two programs to help preserve the foundation that Barnard had already built, while helping Columbia add a women’s program to satisfy Title IX requirements.
Another hope was to bridge the funding gap between the two schools and forge a partnership that would allow Columbia to have a Division I program that was aided in part by the presence of women’s teams—particularly in the early years of the consortium era, when getting recruited athletes to attend Columbia was more difficult.
The various terms of the consortium outlined that Barnard would contribute a certain monetary percentage to the operation of the athletic department, and in turn would compete under the Columbia University crown. This included, but was not limited to, access to Division I-quality facilities in Dodge Gymnasium and Baker Field, as well as an uptick in competition.
For the likes of runner Ari Brose, BC ’84, and fencer Lisa Piazza, BC ’85, who traded in Barnard uniforms for Columbia kits once the consortium was ratified, competing as a Bear versus as a Lion were notably different experiences.
Brose, who like many athletes at the time that joined the track and field and cross country teams as a walk-on, noted that the newly formed Columbia team was now competing against Ivy League opponents, most of whom were recruited Division I athletes.
“I still remember, there was a woman running the 10k at the Ivies the spring of my senior year, who I later watched run competitively at the Olympic trials and such,” Brose said. “So they [Columbia’s new opponents] were very high-quality athletes."
Unlike Brose, Piazza, who was a three-time all-American during her time at Barnard, explained that while her competition against other colleges remained stagnant, fencing against members of the men’s team in practice is ultimately what contributed to the fencing team’s success early in the consortium era.
“We’d travel together, go to tournaments together, we trained together,” Piazza said. “I’d say the spirit really increased once the consortium was formed, because there was more cross-pollination between the teams.”
Tversky articulated that the sole downside of the consortium was that Barnard could get lost in the shuffle, and though she struck an agreement with Paul to put the Columbia name and logo on all uniforms, she insisted that all rosters include designations for the various schools that each athlete attended within the University.
Out of the spotlight
For the Barnard student-athletes themselves, recognition from the University that validates their commitment to their respective teams is often absent.
“I would say there’s definitely kind of a negative attitude, and I would also say that the school in general—saying you’re an athlete is kind of a dangerous thing,” Zionts said. “I feel like professors are kind of like, ‘Oh so you didn't really get in’ or ‘You don't deserve to be here’ ... so I would say that I don’t tell people I'm an athlete.”
While Blackett mentioned the success of events like Barnard Night, which has been traditionally held during the basketball season as an effort to integrate Barnard students into the University’s athletic community, this year’s team roster had no Barnard players.
Angela Beam, BC ’18, who serves as the vice president for campus life on Barnard’s Student Government Association, told Spectator that along with the athletics’ events team, a decision was reached to cancel this year’s Barnard Night because it failed to fully engage the students.
“I think [Barnard Night’s] ultimate goal when it was started was to celebrate the Barnard-Columbia athletic consortium, which was great, but I don’t think that it was the best setting to do it in,” Beam said. “Because there aren’t Barnard athletes on the basketball team, it becomes something that’s forced or superimposed … which is like we’re checking off a box. ‘Yeah, we did acknowledge Barnard athletes this year.’”
However, for former women’s basketball standouts Judie Lomax, BC ’10, a two-time NCAA Division I rebounding champion, and Danielle Browne, BC ’10, a four-time all-Ivy honoree, Barnard Night was a positive event. During the peak of Lomax and Browne’s college careers, there were as many as six Barnard athletes on the team at once. This made Barnard Night particularly meaningful for these athletes.
Browne noted a lot of support came from her Barnard peers and faculty.
“I think being in a much more intimate space at Barnard allowed us to make connections and to get fans over,” Browne said. “This was why I think having Barnard Night was one of our biggest nights, because that’s when us Barnard athletes would say this was the night they had to represent for us.”
Yet in the aftermath of the Browne and Lomax eras, despite the decrease in numbers, the pride that Barnard athletes have in their school has remained stagnant. Instead, Barnard athletes have felt a stronger connection to other female athletes playing for the Light Blue, rather than to their respective college.
When the wrestling scandal occurred in November 2016, many Barnard and Columbia female athletes came away with mixed emotions surrounding the sexist and racist messages that senior members of the wrestling team had written in a group chat. But for junior squash player Adele Bernhard, it was her teammates—both from Columbia and Barnard—that created a strong support system, regardless of school.
Bernhard additionally praised the Columbia athletics administration, noting that it goes out of its way to provide a support system for all athletes.
While Samuelson doesn’t feel that the support has always reached Barnard athletes adequately, she highlighted the importance of her experience on a Columbia team as one of learning—not just as an athlete, but as a Barnard student.
“I can’t overestimate the impact of the sports team and the women with whom I compete on my formation in the things that Barnard says it does,” Samuelson said. “In terms of female empowerment and feeling confident and learning to push yourself, rowing has complemented my Barnard experience rather than detract from it.”