On Monday, Barnard President Debora Spar announced the intention to demolish and rebuild Lehman Hall, so as to build sufficient space after some period of time in excess of 20 or 30 years.
I went to Lehman Library to check out a book earlier this week. The building’s facade is unsightly and the interior is dilapidated. No preservation society will fight to preserve the architecture for its aesthetic worth. The wrecking ball can’t hit soon enough, and I’m glad that President Spar has the good sense to plan ahead.
Barnard’s finances have been in shambles for as long as any current student cares to remember. It is telling that in the same meeting in which Spar announced her intention to replace Lehman, she simultaneously voiced doubt about Barnard’s ability to pay the $150 million bill for demolition and reconstruction.
More importantly, as the 21st century moves along, I wonder whether Barnard can continue to justify its existence as an independent undergraduate school alongside Columbia College. Meaningless rhetoric and labels aside, I wonder whether in 20 or 30 years Barnard will be able to offer its students a college experience that is substantially or even noticeably different from one at Columbia College. I wonder whether it does right now.
I don’t want to compare mission statements or dwell on the merger between Barnard and Columbia that almost took place 30 or so years ago. We are told that Barnard is a small liberal arts college in New York and that Columbia is the big research university under whose umbrella Barnard resides. Yet beside the label and the rhetoric, I don’t see how the substance of a Barnard education necessarily differs from a Columbia College one.
While different degree and major requirements exist, the classes that fulfill those requirements are often the same ones—with the obvious exception of Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. Degree and major requirements are, by design, flexible and lenient enough to accommodate a wide variety of academic experiences. While Columbia’s academic program does not directly correspond with Barnard’s—that is to say there isn’t a Columbia equivalent for every Barnard requirement and vice versa—the differences seem to me more administrative and arbitrary than substantive.
I understand that there are minute differences between the Columbia College science requirement and the Barnard Laboratory Science requirement, and that the Global Core is slightly different from Cultures in Comparison. Yet, it is entirely possible that two students, one registered at Columbia, another registered at Barnard, can graduate with similar degrees, having taken many of the same courses.
Having never used the advising, health, career, or any other support services at Barnard—and to be honest, having barely used the ones at Columbia either—I can’t speak to whether tangible differences exist between the two. However, I don’t think there are necessary and essential differences between the host of administrative and support services available on both sides of the street. Perhaps differences exist now, but there is no reason they have to. What differences there may be do not define Barnard or Columbia—they are incidental.
If Columbia split its undergraduate support services in half, the first half catering to students whose names begin A-L, the second half catering to students whose names begin M-Z, there might be some differences in the quality of one half compared to the other half. However, that is not to say that the two halves will differ in kind. Barnard’s advising system might be in much better shape than Columbia’s, but that difference hardly merits a separate school.
I can’t for the life of me figure out how the social life could be so different on the other side of the street. Living in womens-only dormitories could be seen as significant, but given that Barnard students have the opportunity to live off-campus or in Columbia residence halls, it is hardly an unshakeable pillar of the Barnard experience. The fact is that Columbia and Barnard share classrooms, we eat at the same restaurants, go out to the same bars, and ride the same subway trains.
While a Barnard-Columbia merger might seem logical, it is more likely to be caused by economic reasons than one of educational philosophy. Barnard is in a rather dire situation—pools are being closed, doubles are being turned into triples, and physical education requirements are being curtailed. Columbia, despite the Manhattanville expansion, will continue to view limited space as its biggest impediment toward further expansion.
Especially if they become more acute, Barnard’s dire finances and Columbia’s demand for space would make a merger mutually beneficial. If and when a merger occurs, I don’t know whether we—that is, Columbia AND Barnard—will lose much aside from the administrative overlap that currently exists.
And where does that overlap come from? It comes as a result of the separate history of the two schools, because at one point in time, Columbia didn’t see it fit to accept women.
So, why isn’t a merger being seriously considered?
Lanbo Zhang is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics and history. He is a former Spectator editorial page editor. Second Impressions runs alternate Thursdays.
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