The Barnard Experience

by Olivia Goldman

Part of a Facebook banner campaign,
courtesy of Ayèlet Pearl and Jordan Alam

After Lanbo Zhang proposed a Barnard and Columbia merger and called into question the uniqueness of the “Barnard experience” from Columbia College last Wednesday, The Nine Ways of Knowing staff
quickly realized that his article lacked the voice of even one Barnard student. At the very least, this could only be considered ignorant.

We decided not to counter the article by singing Barnard praises (as, I admit, I could have easily done). In an effort to understand better how Barnard students feel about our relationship with Columbia, we opened discussion in a Facebook page, encouraging Barnard students—no matter what their opinion—to share their thoughts. To summarize the discussion in a word, for Barnard students, the relationship to Barnard and to Columbia is complicated.

Our relationship with Columbia, from a practical standpoint as a student, isn’t really that confusing. Academically, Barnard and Columbia are full partners. Some departments are doubled, but some departments can be singularly based at either school. Class and student spaces are completely shared. But, financially, Barnard and Columbia are completely separate. We each have our own service offices, and our own faculty. But why are we separate financially, and how does this figure into shaping our experience differently from our peers across the street?

“The biggest difference between Barnard and Columbia is Barnard students having to constantly justify our existence as students and as an institution.” — Tabia Santos, BC ’13

The Barnard-Columbia relationship is the majority of the reason why going to Barnard is so confusing. The entire student body of Barnard students would never be able to come to a consensus about why Barnard is here—because I’m sure not all Barnard students are even certain. There’s no denying that Barnard was necessary over 30 years ago, before Columbia College was co-ed, or in 1950 when women made up 30% of the workforce. But now where does Barnard fit in? Do the benefits of going to an all-female institution outweigh the benefits of going to a co-ed one?

Whereas once an all-female institution used to be the only option for ambitious women, now it is but one of many options. In a particularly heart-warming article published two years ago that most Barnard students remember, Tom Matlack mused on the benefits of women’s colleges. For some, going to an women’s college was an extremely conscious choice.

“[Women have] been here the whole time. We did not just pop out of the snow overnight, like daisies… At the end of it all, women’s colleges promote awareness, challenge the status quo, and take us one step closer to gender equality. Now tell me that is irrelevant.” — Jo Chiang, BC ’15

While all Barnard women might not even agree on this front, the necessity of women’s colleges isn’t what’s really at question here. It’s Barnard’s existence as an institution apart from Columbia in it’s own right.

“In terms of my own experience, I would prefer if Barnard merged with Columbia. I think it would clarify the relationship between the two schools, reduce the friction on campus, and generally improve school spirit.” — Laura Garrison, BC ’15

I think most Barnard students in favor of a merger would cite the animosity between Barnard and Columbia as a huge factor behind their decision. Why should we have to deal with this tenuous relationship when our reason for being separate isn’t even something that we have that we can completely count on? Why should we all keep fighting and fueling the rivalry (Barnard has a better teaching community, Columbia has a more prestigious faculty)?

I think Barnard has to be conscious that a merger would probably not make these feelings go away. People usually cite the ambiguity of the relationship between the two schools as why it’s so tense between the colleges (are we an affliate? Or are we part of the University?). While this ambiguity may play a factor in all of this (and I would argue that these two identities mean the same thing), there are much more tangible issues at play. The first being admissions, the second being that this is an all women’s college. As a single-gendered community, Barnard is naturally much more susceptible to prejudices and stereotypes. But neither of these are acceptable reasons for the Barnard community being treated as it has been. High school is over. The need to constantly put down people that are seen as inferior is a huge problem that the Columbia students who hate on Barnard need to overcome. Likewise, this hate and this adversity is a difficult and complicated issue that all Barnard women work to overcome. Some never do, and not because they aren’t strong women, but maybe because they see the logic in the arguments against Barnard, while some of us plug our fingers in our ears and are determined to shut it out. These obstacles as Barnard students are, unfortunately, part of what defines our Barnard experience.

Courtesy of Barnard’s website.

And what exactly would we lose in a merger? We would most certainly not be the first of the sister schools to do this. Some argue that Barnard could maintain a separate “Barnard experience” even if there was a merger with Columbia. In fact, even beyond the sister schools, many all-female institutions have also followed this slippery slope. Douglass College, or the New Jersey College for Women, once the largest public women’s college in the United states, was founded in 1918 and was an affiliate of Rutgers University. In 2005, the beginnings of a merger was announced. In 2007, “Douglass Residential College” of Rutgers’ School of Arts & Sciences was formed as a compromise between the Douglass students that wanted a complete merger and those that fought to remain completely separate. Students can elect to live on Douglass Campus (in all-female dormitories) as one of the five Rutgers University campuses after they are granted admissions to Rutgers’ School of Arts & Sciences. “We have a dean, we have advisors,” says Tina Gordon, an alumna of Douglass College in the 1970s, of Douglass maintaining its own identity. “We have all the things you’d expect to find a typical college. We just don’t have a faculty.”

If that statement didn’t send shudders through every Barnard student reading this article, I’m not sure what will. While Douglass continues to sucessfully provide an optional all-female environment, and even to an extent the “hurrah” of feminism most present through extra-curriculars, that is not only what Barnard is about. There is a deeper and vital connection that comes through Barnard’s autonomy as an academic and liberal arts community. Just as with Douglass, a merger would inevitably and completely change the Barnard experience. You could argue that Barnard might be able to keep their offices and their faculty, but please be realistic. All of Barnard’s staff and faculty would be completely under the policy and employment of Columbia University. An institution like Columbia’s at least strives for (if not succeeds) financial efficiency. Do you really think that Columbia would happily maintain the costs of two separate Career Development offices? Two separate Economics, History, Biology (and so many other) departments?

The Barnard experience is so far from just living with or being surrounded by girls. In fact, part of what makes Barnard so different from Smith or Wellesley is that most girls don’t even come to Barnard because it’s an “all-girls school.” Many girls at Barnard (perhaps incorrectly so) didn’t even think of Barnard as an all-girls school when they chose to come here, myself included. Part of that is ignorance, but part of that is because, maybe, that didn’t really bother us all that much. Unlike most of our female high school peers, the thought of going to a women’s school wasn’t a complete turn off. Maybe we didn’t expect Barnard to be as much of an all-girls school as it really is, but we weren’t afraid of Barnard being a school with only girls. We didn’t hate men, but we respected women enough to share a college with only women. Barnard uniquely offered and continues to be an opportunity to be empowered as women without having to fear never speaking or talking to men again.

As the most selective and prestigious women’s college in all of the United States, we have to set an example. A merger with Columbia would indeed save us on a financial level. But just how much would that cost?

The Barnard experience is different for all of us. Sometimes we love it. Sometimes we feel like feminist propaganda is being shoved down our throats. Sometimes we feel slighted by the lack of finances. Sometimes we wish we had gone to co-ed schools. Sometimes we’re awestruck by Barnard’s wonderful opportunities and faculty. This conversation is so heated because the Barnard experience is about constantly justifying and questioning our college’s very existence, not only to Columbia students, but also to ourselves. We are all here for different reasons. Why did we come to a women’s school, why did we come to Barnard, and what strength have we gained from that? What has Barnard taught us, and is that expendable? As women, what is our place in society? In my opinion, the Barnard experience gives us the tools to ask these questions. Barnard also gives us the forum in which to try to answer them. And it is Barnard’s community that will decide when the Barnard experience no longer differs from Columbia’s.

Olivia Goldman is a junior at Barnard and Editor in Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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