News | Administration

Retirees reflect on their time at Columbia

  • Tianyue Sun / Staff Photographer
    SHAPIRO THE HERO | Former Barnard president Judith Shapiro held the post from 1994 until 2008.
  • DEAN-BURG | Although her original aspiration was to become a cowgirl, former Barnard dean Dorothy Denburg spent more than 40 years working at the college.
  • Luke Henderson / Senior Staff Photographer
    CHALMING | Douglas Chalmers, professor emeritus, has taught at Columbia since 1968 and continues to teach a section of Contemporary Civilization each semester.

Two prominent Barnard administrators and a longtime Columbia professor will retire at the end of this year.

Barnard Vice President for College Relations and former Barnard dean Dorothy Denburg, political science professor Douglas Chalmers, and former Barnard president Judith Shapiro have all worked at the University for more than 40 years. Spectator sat down with the beloved Morningside Heights fixtures to get a snapshot of what they’ll remember.

***

Denburg got her first job at the college while crying in a bathroom at Milbank Hall.

“My first boss at Barnard came out of one of the stalls in the ladies’ room and said, ‘Dorothy, are you looking for a job?’” Denburg said. “I said yes.”

Her original aspiration, though, was to become a cowgirl.

“After I gave up the illusion that I could be Annie Oakley, I dreamt of being a teacher,” she said.

In retirement, Denburg hopes she will be able to have daily breakfasts with her husband, with whom she plans on auditing Barnard classes. She also will continue advising her first-years and will teach one first-year seminar a year.

Denburg says she has too many good memories of Barnard to pick a favorite.

“I always get a charge out of move-in day—with its sense of promise—and big waves of emotion on graduation day—when I see what our students have become,” she said. “I feel the potential that they’re taking into the world.”

For Denburg, the transition will be bittersweet.

“I will definitely miss the people that I’m working with,” she said. “And I will miss the campus. I will miss the feeling I get when I walk onto this campus. I think it’s a beautiful place.”  

***

For Douglas Chalmers, a professor emeritus in the political science department, becoming a professor was not his initial life-plan. At the age of four, he wanted to be a gas station attendant.

Chalmers graduated from Bowdoin College and earned a Ph.D. from Yale. He spent a year in Mexico studying for his Ph.D.—simply because it was cheap—and the experience ended up leading him to focus on Latin American politics.

From that point on, Chalmers obtained a position teaching Latin American politics at Rutgers University, even though he half-jokingly claims he didn’t know anything about the field.

“The best way to learn anything is to teach it,” Chalmers said.

Seven years later, Chalmers was brought into the Columbia political science department as a substitute, and he managed to get a permanent appointment. He has now been teaching at Columbia since 1968 and continues to teach a Contemporary Civilization course every year.

Since retiring from full-time teaching eight years ago, Chalmers has been the executive director of the Society of Senior Scholars, a group of semi-retired professors who stay on to teach Core classes. He also published two books this year.

“Retirement is going on and doing things you want to do without being forced to follow schedule,” Chalmers said.

***

Shapiro, who retired as the president of Barnard in 2008, grew up in Queens and graduated from Brandeis University in 1963. From there, she went on to study anthropology and teach at the University of Chicago, where she was the first woman ever hired by the anthropology department, and at Bryn Mawr College. In 1994, Shapiro became the president of Barnard and started a lifelong friendship with Denburg.

“A day in the life of a president is very highly structured. Not all days are the same, but first of all, every day, I would go home with a salmon-colored card with every part of my day blocked out. Did I have a breakfast meeting? Who was I meeting with? Did I have to go somewhere in town? ... The days were endless.”

Whenever she had a free lunch hour, which was not often, she went back to her Riverside Drive apartment and relaxed while watching “The Young and the Restless.”

Perhaps because her days are no longer structured on index cards, Shapiro has more time to devote to teaching, singing, serving on committee boards, knitting, and spending time with her beloved black poodle, Nora, also known as a “Poodle American Princess.” Shapiro has also taught a Reacting to the Past course at Barnard since the year following her retirement.

Her love for knitting strengthened her relationship with Denburg, alongside whom she worked in Barnard’s administration for a long time.

“Dean Denburg and I both enjoy recreational knitting and needlepointing, so one of the things we took to doing was meeting with a group of 20 students or so in the Vagelos Alumnae Center, and we would actually bring needlework with us. We figured the feminist movement was far enough along that we didn’t have to worry about doing this. So we’d be sitting there needlepointing and knitting away, chatting about whatever topic the students wanted.”

Shapiro and Denburg both said that their lives have been enhanced by working at a place surrounded by students.

“You stay young being around young people—and being around really great young people,” Shapiro said.

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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