What It's Like Being The Best Female College President, Ever

Being the president of the prestigious Barnard College means far more than just being involved in academia. It means writing four books. It means having taught at Harvard Business School. It means being a major voice for feminists in the media. It means being on the Board of Directors for Goldman Sachs. It means, for six years and counting, being Debora Spar. When you started working as an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, you were considered the odd one out. How did this benefit you?

I think I learned very early in my career how to get along with very different kinds of people and how to be a minority without either totally conforming to a norm that wasn’t mine, or constantly being labeled an outsider.

You are now the president of Barnard College, which means you are now surrounded primarily by females. How does the dynamic differ from that of a coed working environment?

Well, both Barnard and HBS are coed environments, but the difference is that HBS is mostly run by men, while Barnard is mostly run by women.  And I find the differences between them to be both subtle and fascinating.  At places dominated by men, I think, people are generally more comfortable with overt displays of power, and with explicit chains of authority.  Places dominated by women tend to organize themselves more about personal relationships, and around persuasion rather than demand. I don’t think one or the other is better, but they are different.

You have written four books on four very different topics. What have the motivating factors been behind your decisions to write each book?

Because I don’t have to support myself from my writing, I have the great luxury of writing about what interests me.  Generally, I find that I have to take at least a year between each writing project, waiting for a topic that really grabs my attention and then gives me the opportunity of learning something new, and putting together the pieces of a different sort of puzzle.  For me, writing is both a deep intellectual challenge and a sheer pleasure.

Barnard College is a women's college. Do you believe that your students are better equipped to be confident female leaders? What do they have to gain from being attached to Columbia University?

I don’t believe that the only way for women to become confident leaders is to attend a women’s college. But I do think that being at a women’s college for four precious and formative years gives young women the space and freedom in which to define themselves intellectually without constantly being reminded of their gender.  And being able to get this definition formed at any early age certainly helps women as they venture out into the workforce and their adult lives.

What would you say to a young female who claimed to not support feminism?

I like to remind people of a T-shirt produced by our Barnard Center for Research on Women, which states simply that “Feminism is the crazy idea that women are equal.”  And that’s exactly right.  Any woman who is trying to get a job, or an education, or a credit card is a beneficiary of the feminist movement.  But feminism is a broad movement with many different paths and arguments, so I don’t think that anyone has to be a card-carrying member of the whole thing. They just need to remember that many of the things that young women today take for granted – like college degrees or voting rights or birth control – came because earlier generations of women fought long and hard for them.

You are often asked to contribute to discussions going on in the media because people are so responsive to you. How did you build credibility as one of the leading feminists minds of our time?

Thanks for the compliment!  I don’t know that anyone can set out explicitly to build credibility. I know I didn’t. But credibility comes from having your own ideas, knowing how to support and argue for them, and learning how to  speak your mind so that people listen.  These aren’t skills that come naturally, I don’t think.  They come with practice, and from really believing what you say, write, and advocate for.

As the president of Barnard, what exactly does your job entail? Is there such thing as a typical day?

There is no typical day, which is exactly why I love the job!  Every day is different, and every day contains a huge range of activities.  Today was a brief TV appearance at an ungodly early hour; a visit to a potential event venue; a couple of staff meetings and alumnae calls; a visit with the head of one of the military academies; a board dinner; and time to answer these interview questions.

Through your experience with educating and enriching college women, do you find that there is one or a few consistent characteristics that makes for strong leaders both in college and post graduate in the workforce?

One of the most important characteristics I see – in college leadership and beyond – is the ability to present one’s thoughts, both on paper (or other media) and in person.  Young women have to find their voices, exercise them, and then present their thoughts in ways that capture people’s attention.

You have spearheaded the Barnard Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard, a goal of yours since your inaugural address in 2008, and it has become an incredible success. Why was this such a priority of yours coming into your role as President?

Barnard had the early stages of what became the Athena Center before I came to the College.  And it struck me as such an incredible opportunity – to build a center focused on women’s leadership that could work with young women at the very earliest stages of their development, exposing them not only to the fabulous faculties of Barnard and Columbia, but also to all the leaders, male and female, who either work in or pass through New York.  We all know that the world needs more female leaders, and Barnard is in a lucky spot to be able to contribute significantly to this development.

School, whether it is middle school or college, can be a very competitive environment, and there can be immense pressure to attain the highest GPA possible. In the process, the love for learning can be put to the wayside. How do we foster a love for learning when that sort of pressure is so dominant?

School is definitely a massively competitive environment these days – far too competitive, in my opinion.  So I advise girls (and boys) to try to do two things:  first, try, in the midst of the rush, to find things you love.  And then remind yourself that the reason you’re working so hard is to give yourself the opportunity to do the things you love throughout your life.

On top of your responsibilities at Barnard, you are also on the Board of Directors for Goldman Sachs. What made you decide to take this on?

When I was asked to take this role, I called Anna Quindlen, then the Chair of the Barnard board, and a wonderful and powerful advocate for women.  Her words to me were powerful and succinct.  “You spend so much time talking about the importance of getting women into leadership positions,” she reminded me.  “You have now been offered one.  You have to take it.”

Where do you see feminism, as well as your place in the feminist movement, being in 10 years?

I don’t have a particularly good crystal ball, but I would hope that we continue to see a multiplication of the many different forms of feminism:  feminism focused on girls rights, and gay rights, and workers rights, and rights for people of color.  And I hope to continue being part of the conversation