Updated, Jan. 6, 11:30 a.m.
Colleagues remember Karen Blank, who served as Barnard's dean of studies for 19 years, as a kind and gentle mentor and strong supporter of both academics and athletics.
Blank, who took a medical leave of absence in 2012 shortly before she was set to retire, died recently. Barnard President Debora Spar announced her death in an email to students yesterday.
After serving as an associate dean of Student Affairs at Columbia College, Blank began her tenure at Barnard in 1993.
“We were lucky to get her,” Rosalind Rosenberg, a senior scholar at Barnard and a member of the search committee that selected Blank back in 1993, said in an email.
“As a long time member of the Columbia College Dean's Office, she not only had great experience but also links to Columbia faculty and staff that allowed her instantly to improve communication between the two schools,” Rosenberg said. “More important, she brought us her wisdom, kindness, and extraordinary interpersonal skills.”
While dean of studies, Blank oversaw a review of Barnard's general education requirements and chaired the committee on honors and the committee on programs and academic standing. She also advised Barnard's Honor Board from 1993 to 2011.
“She inspired us all to work together more effectively to improve student life at Barnard—improving our advising system, ensuring the fairness of our judicial proceedings, and in many other ways making Barnard the special place it is today,” Rosenberg said.
Flora Schiminovich, a senior scholar and another member of the 1993 search committee, said that Blank had “all the qualities necessary to lead one of the most demanding administration offices at Barnard.”
“I knew that I could always count with her for support and enlightenment concerning any matter related to students,” Schiminovich, also a faculty adviser under Blank, said. “She had a very special way of relating to faculty and students—never arrogant, always pleasant and understanding, reflecting about each particular situation with the calm and analysis that was required.”
Blank was also known for her close relationships with students and was honored by Barnard's Student Government Association as administrator of the year in 2001.
Jyoti Menon, BC '01 and SGA president during the 2000-01 school year, called Blank “someone students went to when they had questions as an adviser, as a mentor.”
“She was always there as a smiling face on campus,” Menon said. “Everyone I knew adored her, and really went to her for everything.”
“Everything about her was really warm and welcoming, at all times,” Madeline Richer, BC/JTS '14 and a former advisee of Blank, said.
“She always made me feel like a priority,” Richer said. “She always reminded me to get involved in whatever I wanted to get involved in and always made sure I was having fun in addition to working on school.”
Richer said that Blank was helpful in guiding her and other students through the double degree program with Jewish Theological Seminary.
“That didn't even get mentioned in her biography, which just shows that she had so much on her plate and so much that she was working on,” Richer said.
Also a strong supporter of Columbia athletics, Blank worked closely with Barnard students who participated in sports and was a frequent presence at women's basketball games.
“She really believed in athletics as an integral part of a college education,” Patricia Grieve, a professor of humanities and the faculty athletics representative, said. “She was a strong supporter of both male and female athletes, but really encouraged Barnard women to become more involved with athletics.”
Just last year, Grieve and Columbia Athletic Director M. Dianne Murphy contacted donors to endow an award in honor of Blank that would be bestowed each spring to a Barnard athlete who excelled in academics, athletics, sportsmanship, and commitment to the community.
“We thought that there could really be no greater honor than to endow an award in her honor for Barnard women and to send a signal that she's such an inspiration to so many people,” Grieve said.
“Karen's passion for equity and diversity as our Faculty Athletics Representative was exemplary,” Murphy said in a statement. “The enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment to academic and athletic excellence that Karen demonstrated during her tenure will be an inspiration to us all for years to come.”
Grieve said that she will most remember Blank as a leader dedicated to the Barnard and Columbia community.
“She was really someone that people turned to—not just students, but also faculty and other administrators—because she was such a guiding presence. I think people knew they could turn to her,” Grieve said.
“She certainly could have gone to other schools, but she chose to stay here for another decade,” Grieve added. “I think that says a lot about her and what she loved about us as well.”
A memorial service will be held Jan. 9 at 11 a.m. at West End Collegiate Church.
Elizabeth Sedran contributed reporting.