I started writing a post about Barnard-Columbia relations in the wake of the announcement that President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker at Barnard College, but I decided it was too specific for a broad audience. But then, The New York Times decided it was a story worthy of a national newspaper. And Jezebel followed up with a blog post. This letter is to Anna Bahr, the sophomore at Barnard who sent in the information about the comments on the campus blog, Bwog, to Jezebel.
If you don’t want to click on the links, here’s the one paragraph version of the back story (up to date through March 7): President Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia College, told Barnard that he would speak at Barnard’s commencement (likely a reflection of the central role women’s issues have taken in the current election); Barnard said “yes, please,” and the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who was scheduled to speak said “I’ll come another time.” Students got annoyed that Barnard was getting Obama instead of Columbia, and wrote nasty comments on the campus blog, Bwog. The New York Times picked up the story and quoted the President of Barnard as dismissing the comments (their verb, not mine) as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” Students got annoyed and angry and asked for a better response, and the presidents of Barnard and of Columbia University issued another statement.
Here’s my response to one annoyed student who wrote into the feminist blog Jezebel, which is published by Gawker media.
As an alumna of Barnard I’ve been following this story with interest. I first heard that Obama was coming from a text from a fellow Barnard alumna. (You should know that the word “Barnard” will make you instant friends with not only other Barnard alumnae but also other Seven Sisters alumnae. It’s pretty great). I called her and we got really excited for Barnard and then, because we are now public policy students, we talked about the politics of it.
I’ve also been following it with rolled eyes. I suspect that this kind of conversation about the Barnard-Columbia relationship has been around since 1982, when Columbia became co-ed. The Internet just brought the insecurities to the surface and allowed people to express them with the kind of disgustingness that is only possible with anonymity.
Bwog is its own special (and often terrible) ecosystem. It was launched when I was in college, and I can tell you that it used to be much worse. People used to post terrible terrible things about individuals, naming them by name, and Bwog, then an infant publication, didn’t have a policy to deal with those kind of comments. I think that they do now, and I think that that level of vitriol has improved a bit.
This is all to say that everything and everyone grows up. Bwog has grown up, and the people posting on Bwog will grow up. I think that Barnard President Deborah Spar, wasn’t simply dismissive, it was a description of reality.
You know as well as anyone that Barnard isn’t easier than Columbia. There is nothing intrinsic in Barnard’s distribution requirements that make them easier than Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, just wildly different. And a required thesis and a required major–which Barnard has and Columbia does not– certainly do not make completing a Barnard education easier than a Columbia education.
In a lot of ways, the schools are so totally different. There are different cultures; there are different attitudes from the administrators about what students should get from college experiences (See: Barnard offering Greek Games, a functional advising systems, student leadership awards, and the I ❤ BC Day for examples). There are different opportunities. And, of course, there are a lot of similarities. They share sports teams, clubs, and a school newspaper. And, Columbia University has a hand in conferring degrees to the students of both Columbia College and Barnard College (not to mention they also confer or have a hand in conferring degrees to the students of SEAS, the school of General Studies, Teachers College and a lot of other schools). I say “hand in conferring” because the degree is issued by both Barnard and Columbia, not just by Columbia.
But the main difference that people on those boards seem to be griping about when you cut through the crap? Admissions rate. Barnard has a higher admissions rate than Columbia College.
Long story short, I think that this is the reason that President Spar told the New York Times the nastiness in the comments “probably is 19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” It’s not just dismissive. It’s reality. By the time junior year rolls around, SAT scores and admissions letters should feel distant. What seemed like the cornerstone of self worth as a senior in high school (how prestigious, according to admissions rates the college you chose is) should fade into new measures (how happy am I? Is this school a good fit? Am I getting an education I enjoy, and am challenged by?).
So, when people write that Barnard getting diplomas that are similar to Columbia College degrees somehow diminishes the value of a Columbia College degree, they are still stuck in the high school mentality. I wish there was a way to see who is commenting on Bwog, but I’d be really surprised if the people harping on admissions rate were seniors. Admissions rates should fade from view as other things become more important and better arbiters of your employability or all-around awesomeness.
Don’t take President Spar’s statement as simply dismissive (I mean, of course you can take it that way, but know that it might not be the only way to take it). It can also be seen as a statement of hope: that people grow up, and where you went to college matters less and less.
Are the terrible comments terrible? Yes. But the first rule of surviving the Internet should be “don’t feed the trolls.”
The graduation requirements only matter in so far as how much you can apply the knowledge you have learned, along with your experiences outside of the classroom, to your life post-college.
The admissions statistics don’t matter at all.
The comments on Bwog don’t matter at all, either.
P.S. Do you know who the second person to text me about Obama’s speech was? A friend who is a Columbia College alumna. She also thought the news was cool.
UPDATES: President Deborah Spar and President Lee C. Bollinger have issued an updated statement that says, in part, “we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community”.
On March 4, a day after the post about Obama speaking at Barnard went up on the site, Bwog put up a call to “help us rewrite our comment policy.” I just noticed it while updating the links for this post.