Barnard to launch Athena Center

The Barnard Leadership Initiative is slated to relaunch as the Athena Center, a program with a full-time director and revised priorities, in September 2009.

A recent proposal circulated by Barnard President Debora Spar details ways in which she and an advisory group hope to assist the program in better fitting the interdisciplinary program into the college’s liberal arts framework. After creating a conceptual basis for the center, Spar and the faculty committee for the BLI are hammering out logistics, such as sources of funding and a search for a new, full-time director.

The Barnard Leadership Initiative is an interdisciplinary program that joins curricular and co-curricular opportunities to help give women leadership skills. The program is currently overseen by the faculty committee for the BLI, with Alan Dye, associate professor of economics, as the director.

Last week, Spar released the proposal, which suggests offering courses emphasizing different components of women’s leadership, an extracurricular component with diverse internships, and a capstone seminar taught by the director.

“The goals are pretty ambitious,” Spar said in an interview. The new center, she said, will focus more on “the question of leadership in the context of a liberal arts college.”

In fitting the center to a liberal arts framework, “the program will be devoted to examining leadership from an interdisciplinary and critical perspective, probing what it means to lead and to engage productively in all aspects of community life,” Joanne Kwong, media relations director, said.

According to the proposal, “the program has piqued the interest of students, faculty, and alumnae, but a lack of dedicated funds, focus, and energy has limited its effectiveness.”

Sarah Besnoff, BC ‘09 and Student Government Affairs president, noted that she has enjoyed BLI. “I really feel like coming to Barnard, I really wanted to see this kind of thing in the curriculum.” But it was far from perfect. She said that SGA wrote up a “little white paper” on some of the students’ concerns.
Some areas students cited for improvement have been the extracurricular aspects of the program, the rigid academic requirements, and a lack of speakers from outside the fields of political science or finance.

The proposal indicates that Barnard has done a great deal of soul-searching in transitioning the program. “The first step, conducted during the course of the 2008-2009 academic year, has been to enlist the members of our community—students, alumnae, faculty, and administrators—in a deep and ambitious reexamination of the BLI,” the proposal said. “Based on these extensive conversations, our goal now is refine and extend the original program, building an interdisciplinary center devoted entirely to the theory and practice of women’s leadership.”

Funding sources for the program have yet to be determined. “It’s not a particularly expensive program,” Spar said. “There’s no building involved [and] there’s not a lot of new faculty involved.” The Athena Center will keep the same general curriculum as BLI. Unlike the previous center, though, Athena will be overseen by a full-time director who will be advised by a faculty advisory group.

“[Athena] builds on things that are already in the existing program,” Spar said. “In the past, the BLI was run by faculty who already have full-time jobs. ... [We want to] have somebody whose life and career is devoted to building the center.”

Spar also said that the new center would place more emphasis on internships. “We’re going to be putting some policy on the internship component of it,” she said, adding that she hopes to find organizations to sponsor internships and provide mentors.

Kwong said the transition, aside from benefiting members of the program—who are known as Athena scholars—will offer events available to a larger group of students.

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