So What’s the Deal??: Columbia-Barnard Relations (1979-1983)

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Graphic by Stephanie Mannheim and Cleo Levin

To Merge or not to Merge?

In the 1880s, the president of Columbia, Fredrick A.P. Barnard, argued for the admission of women to Columbia University. When his efforts were unsuccessful, Annie Nathan Meyer, a self-educated scholar, took up his cause and petitioned the University for an independent liberal arts college for women connected to Columbia. In 1889, Barnard College was founded.

Eighty years into Barnard’s existence, both Barnard and Columbia agreed that the schools needed to reassess their relationship. The politically radical atmosphere of the 1960s had made students at both colleges question the continuing relevancy of a single-sex education, and Barnard feminists began to think of separate curricula as discriminatory. The Columbia administration also had qualms about the relationship between the schools, but for different reasons. Beginning in the 1960s, Columbia had been struggling financially and began to examine Barnard as a place to cut costs. In reaction to the discontent from both the student bodies and the Columbia administration, the Committees on Instruction established the Barnard College-Columbia College Joint Committee on Cooperation in April 1969. Student senators and members of select academic departments came together to discuss the possibilities for increased collaboration.

Fluid enrollment?

The Joint Committee on Cooperation saw the main difference between the two institutions existing in their academic goals. They stated that Columbia’s general education program “makes available to students a wide range of intellectual experience” while Barnard’s emphasis was on “the flexibility of the program, with a minimal distribution requirement, the possibility of early specialization, and a number of interdisciplinary programs.”  The Committee suggested that both schools maintain their present corporate identities, with Barnard admitting only women and Columbia admitting only men, but allowing the students to complete the academic program of either college.

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Barnard and Columbia students protest in Morningside Heights, 1972

One academic enterprise?

The Columbia administrators had different ideas about collaboration. The dean of the graduate faculties, George Fraenkel, had been recruited to work on merging Columbia’s constituent colleges to cut costs. Fraenkel found that Barnard had not been paying enough for the numbers of students enrolled in Columbia courses. Nor were they paying for facilities, namely Barnard’s use of Columbia’s research library. Rather than preserving the school’s separate curricula, Fraenkel’s focus was on eliminating inefficiency in redundant course offerings. He sent letters to various departments in 1976 encouraging them to create “V” courses, joint-listings between Barnard and Columbia. Ultimately, Fraenkel saw the school’s academic programs merging; he wrote to Columbia President William McGill that there should be “one academic enterprise with one set of co-educational courses, one curriculum, one set of departments and one faculty.” The separation between the colleges would remain in finances, admissions, and extra-curricular activities.

“Small Barnard” retains its autonomy and Columbia goes Co-Ed

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Barnard-Columbia Dance 1942

In 1969, Princeton and Yale began admitting women, and Columbia’s peer institutions steadily followed suit. By the mid-60s, Columbia had already begun experiencing difficulties getting their pick of applicants, and, as other schools began to go co-ed, the quality of the Columbia applicants began to drop even further. Columbia was not only losing the potential for strong female students, but also the male applicants who would now choose to attend a co-ed institution. Admitting qualified females would increase the Columbia applicant pool and eliminate the problem of considering the less qualified males that had been applying. Yet, McGill held off, hoping to make Columbia more co-educational with Barnard. Columbia administrators felt certain that accepting women would eliminate their sister school, and they wanted to prevent the bad blood and bad press that would accompany this decision.

When Ellen Futter assumed the Barnard presidency in the 1980, she encountered faculty and trustees divided over whether to merge with Columbia. Though there was a small contingency who prized the relationship with Columbia over Barnard’s personal agenda, the majority continued to champion “small Barnard” and women’s education. It became clear in the spring of 1981 that it would not be possible to reach a compromise between Barnard and Columbia’s values. The Columbia trustees voted to admit women to Columbia in May 1981, and women were able to enroll at the university starting in 1983.

Barnard Today

In the years after Columbia’s decision to admit women, Barnard struggled. There was skepticism from both institutions on what role Barnard would play after Columbia went co-ed. In 1983, of the women admitted to both Barnard and Columbia, 90% chose to go to Columbia. Even worse, as the women’s movement encouraged universities to hire more female faculty, many professors from Barnard were courted by rival schools like Princeton and City University.

Yet, the faculty and administration have been steadily working to cultivate this small women’s liberal arts college, and the school can now uphold the values that Ellen Futter and the Barnard faculty fought for in 1980. Today, Barnard represents a wholly different experience for students from Columbia or other co-ed institutions. Sixty-five percent of faculty at Barnard are women, and students at the college have access to opportunities like the Athena Center for Leadership Studies and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Barnard now represents a distinct and essential place among American colleges.

-Cleo Levin ’14

(With the consultation of Stand, Columbia by Robert A. McCaughey and Changing the Subject: How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics by Rosalind Rosenberg)

 

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