Members of the Barnard contingent faculty union and roughly 20 students demonstrated their discontent with Barnard President Debora Spar on Wednesday night during an event at which she was speaking.
The panel featured Spar, Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence Jennifer Finney Boylan, writer Lizzie Skurnick, and writer and editor Cathi Hanauer, who read selections from the new book “The Bitch is Back.” The book—which all of the panelists contributed material to—explores how societal ideas about women, feminism, and aging have changed in the last 10 years.
Although the student demonstrators remained in their seats during other panelists’ speeches, they stood in the aisles when Spar took to the podium, silently holding posters with phrases critical of what they saw as Spar’s lack of engagement with other pertinent issues, such as the ongoing negotiations with the contingent faculty union, race relations, and fossil fuel divestment, among other issues.
One sign reading “President Spar: For Poor Women Botox Isn’t “There For The Picking” responded to an essay published by Spar in The New York Times last Sunday titled “Aging and My Beauty Dilemma,” which is included in “The Bitch is Back.”
The essay was critiqued by some readers who felt that Spar’s emphasis on appearance and cosmetic surgery was problematic, especially given her position at Barnard.
Ella Merrill, BC ’18, who was one of the silent demonstrators, said that although the panel was “good for what it was,” it was not representative of the views of Barnard’s students and community members.
“I think, especially after her [Spar’s] New York Times op-ed, a lot of us are frustrated that this is what she is using her position of power to discuss,” she said. “Why not talk about the many issues facing the Barnard community at large?”
Shortly before the event, members of the contingent faculty union—which was not involved in the student demonstration—also addressed Spar’s essay in leaflets that they distributed outside of the Event Oval, which also called attention to their ongoing contract negotiations.
“Feminist issues Barnard alumnae consider a very high priority: health care and fair pay for women faculty,” the flier read. “‘Feminist-leaning’ issues Barnard alumnae consider very low priority: the ‘beauty’ dilemmas of the 1%.”
English lecturer Sonam Singh, a member of the contingent faculty union’s bargaining committee, said that having a presence at the event was a way for the union to try and engage with Spar, who he said has been absent from the negotiating table.
“We’ve had a hard time getting her attention. While she’s certainly directing negotiations on behalf of the college, she’s never spoken with us,” he said. “As negotiations drag out, we do want to get her attention.”
Singh also said that although the union, who recently delivered an alumnae petition in support of the union to Spar’s office last Tuesday, would have distributed flyers regardless of whether Spar’s essay had been published or not, he found her op-ed to be “frustrating.”
“Since you are the president of a very important college, and you have this platform, we would like you to focus on issues that matter in a more significant way,” he said.
Ginger Mayo, BC ’20, a member of Divest Barnard who attended the event, said that she found the essay to be “tone-deaf,” particularly as it was published the same week as the 20th anniversary of the clerical worker’s strike.
“I don’t think that the group [of student demonstrators] had a particular issue with the content of the piece, but with the tone and with using this very important platform to talk about something extremely artificial and very inaccessible to most women,” she said.
But regardless of Spar’s controversial essay, student demonstrators said they believed that Spar’s position as the leader and public figurehead of the college meant that she had the responsibility to use her platform to discuss issues facing the larger Barnard community.
“Debora Spar does represent us, and we think her role is important,” Merrill said.