News | Administration

Spar defends decision to resign from Barnard before end of year

Updated Nov. 18, 7:47 p.m.

Following an unexpected announcement from Barnard President Debora Spar that she would be resigning from her position to become the president and CEO of Lincoln Center, Spar defended her decision to resign before the end of the academic year in an interview with Spectator on Thursday.

Spar will be leaving on March 5, over a year before June 2018, when her contract with the college is set to expire and before two key projects of her tenure—the $150 million Teaching and Learning Center and the $400 million capital campaign—have been completed.

When asked why she would leave her position before the end of the academic year, Spar said that it “wasn’t really [her] decision.”

“Lincoln Center has been without a president for quite some time now,” Spar said. “It really becomes a question of balancing out their needs with Barnard's needs.”

Spar, who was initially approached by Lincoln Center for the job, will succeed Jed Bernstein as the performing arts center’s 10th—and first female—president. Bernstein left his post in April following complaints that he had engaged in a consensual relationship with an employee he had promoted several times.

Spar said she believed that staying in her position at Barnard until March was the “best compromise for everybody.”

“That gives me and the college the time to really plan through a transition,” she said.

But faculty and students expressed concern that Spar’s resignation will come before the completion of major projects she has spearheaded.

“She just initiated the Teaching and Learning Center and completely brought down the library [in Lehman Hall], killed the [magnolia] tree, did all of these things, and isn't even going to stay and see it accomplished,” Asya Sagnak, BC ’19, said. “I'm excited for new leadership, but I would have rather she cleaned up the mess she made before she left.”

Spar said that while she will not be present for the completion of such projects, she believes that she has sufficiently set them up for success.

In regard to the Teaching and Learning Center, Spar said the majority of the work left to be done fell outside of the president’s responsibilities, and she mentioned that the Diana Center was still under construction when she first took office in 2008.

“The crucial part is conceptualizing the project, hiring the architects, sculpting the project, critically raising funds for the project. Once you actually hit construction, the contractor is doing the hard work, but the president's not anymore,” she said. “Not that there's not a lot of really hard work to do there, but it's not my work. It's really not the president's work anymore.”
As for her $400 million capital campaign, The Bold Standard, Spar maintained that it would continue seeing success.

“The development team isn't going away, the board isn't going away,” Spar said. “I'm leaving without any worries that either the building project or the Bold Standard will in any way suffer from my departure.”

But faculty and students said they were surprised by Spar’s decision, which was officially announced to the Barnard community alongside an announcement from Lincoln Center on Twitter and an article from the New York Times.

Adjunct English lecturer and member of the Barnard Contingent Faculty-UAW Sonam Singh said there was no mention of Spar’s resignation at the Monday night faculty meeting which Spar attended.

“I had no knowledge. I’m not aware of anyone who did,” he said. "This is uncharted territory—no one saw this coming."

“I feel like she should have told us first,” Natasha Nouri, BC ’18, said. “It was like, kind of out of the blue. I wasn't expecting it, and it’s kind of sad—I liked her.”

With four months left of her tenure at Barnard, Spar said that her main priorities were ensuring a smooth transition and completing her fossil fuel divestment and her diversity and inclusion projects.

The Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment is set to provide its recommendation on whether the college should divest from fossil fuels at the December board meeting. The President’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which Spar inaugurated in Dec. 2015, will be presenting its set of recommendations to the board of trustees in March following a number of community forums set to take place in January and February.

But with an eye toward new presidential leadership, students and alumnae interviewed said Spar’s departure could lead to a renewed focus on issues not prioritized under her presidency.

“She is an example of a very empowered woman—however, I don't know if she was as intersectional as she could have been,” Ali Fraerman, BC ’19, said. “I definitely think we need a strong figurehead and someone with the connections of President Spar to lead the college, but I would like to see more of a connection with the diversity within the community.”

For Jo Chiang, BC ’15, being able to balance financial success with student engagement should be the next administration’s priority.

“So many students now feel so disconnected and isolated from this college,” Chiang said. “It’s important for the financial future of this college to be able to support itself, making sure that students here feel comfortable, feel able to achieve—that is where you create alums in the future that will donate money.”

As Spar begins her transition away from academia and into the world of performing arts, she said she’s eager to be involved in another “extraordinary institution.”

“I grew up in Westchester, and my parents would take me into the city once or twice a year and we always went to Lincoln Center, so for me, New York City has always been Lincoln Center,” she said. “It's like Barnard—it's another one of the great institutions in this amazing city.”

Ainsley Bandrowski and Juliana Greene contributed reporting.

jclara.chan@columbiaspectator.com | @jclarachan

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the message to the Barnard community announcing Spar's departure came three hours after Lincoln Center first announced it due to an inaccurate time stamp on Twitter.

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