College with Outsized Impact to Host President Obama
May 11, 2012
During finals week at Barnard, one of the few remaining liberal arts
women’s colleges in the U.S., the pristine green campus in upper
Manhattan is uncharacteristically hushed.
Young women in the student center barely look up from their books and
laptops. One who does take a moment away from her studies is Barnard
student government president Jessica Blank, who will share the stage at
this year's commencement ceremony with President Barack Obama.
“I’ve been having serious anxiety actually as I try to write my speech,”
Blank said. “Every time I think I have a great draft, I think to myself,
oh well, I’m going to be saying this in front of the president of the
United States, so I think it needs to be tuned up a little bit more?”
Barnard President Debora Spar said the White House has not said why
President Obama asked to speak at this year’s ceremony, but she
speculated that he will use the occasion to talk about renewed political
battles over women’s issues, such as abortion and contraception.
“Clearly and somewhat shockingly, women’s issues have really risen to
the fore in this election year,” she said. “I suspect that he and the
White House are looking for an opportunity to really say something big
about the current state of women in the United States.”
Barnard, one of the elite “Seven Sisters” women’s liberal arts colleges,
was founded in 1889, to offer women a classical liberal arts education
at a time when elite men’s colleges of the Ivy League were closed to
It has graduated many well-known women, from the late anthropologist
Margaret Mead and the writer Zora Neale Hurston to media tycoon Martha
Stewart. President Obama's half-sister, educator Maya Soetoro-Ng, is
also a graduate.
The college, which has about 2,400 students, is affiliated with the much
larger Columbia University, from which President Obama graduated with a
degree in political science in 1983. That was the same year that
Columbia began admitting women undergraduates, following Barnard’s
decision to remain separate.
“We don’t at all operate under the assumption that women need to be
treated differently or that women need to be cloistered away from
society,” college President Spar said, noting that most Barnard and
Columbia classes are open to all students. But she said that being in
the majority for four years offers young women something special: a
place where their gender doesn’t count.
“I spent my whole life always being ‘the woman in the room,’ and always
feeling there’s an expectation and a set of assumptions that comes from
that,” she said. “Here, where the room is full of women, the students
can be themselves, and they don’t have to worry about that extra set of
expectations. And I think that gives them a confidence and a sense of
self that’s really quite magical.”
The point is seconded by students.
“The ambition here is absolutely contagious. When you see it in others,
you see it in yourself,” said Sara Lederman, a graduating senior.
Blank agreed. “Although I didn’t choose Barnard because it was a women’s
college, looking back it was definitely the aspect of Barnard that had
the biggest impact on me,” she said. “It motivates you to do better,
because you see all these incredible, extraordinary women around you.”
Barnard is one of the most expensive colleges in the U.S., with a total
yearly cost of more than $55,000. About half the students receive aid,
averaging $35,000 a year from state, federal and Barnard grants,
according to the college’s figures. Spar said that most students don’t
come from wealthy families, although the 10 percent from abroad might be
She said one reason for increasing applications from international
students, who come from 53 countries, particularly South Korea, China
and India, is the college’s emphasis on fostering women as leaders. That
initiative since 2008 has included annual leadership symposiums held in
other countries: Dubai, India, China and South Africa, so far.
Spar said “I think there’s such a recognition that this is not only a
great moment to think about women’s leadership, but to really turn on
the gas here and seriously try to get more women in leadership
positions, in all sectors of the economy, in all parts of the world.”