“This is not the easiest moment to assume the presidency at Barnard.” A sparse crowd chuckled in the echoing halls of Riverside Church on February 2nd, celebrating the inauguration of Laura Rosenbury, Barnard College’s ninth president.
On the heels of a volatile first semester of her tenure, Rosenbury was joined by Barnard faculty, staff, alumni, and students, as well as her own family and friends, in a ceremony largely in high praise of the president. Until it wasn’t.
“It means so much to be surrounded by our students who amaze me everyday with their passion, their ideas, and their willingness to push boundaries,” said Rosenbury. “They believe so firmly in the mission of Barnard.”
Adorned in light blue robes and a pink dress (to honor Greta Gerwig’s ‘06 Barbie), Rosenbury smiled and nodded quietly at the near corner of the front podium as her colleagues, mentors, students, and siblings expressed admiration of her feminist legal scholarship, her advancement of reproductive rights, and her ability to form meaningful relationships in different social and cultural contexts. Rosenbury “envisions what could be,” according to Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University.
Rosenbury’s first-year college roommate at Harvard, Nalini Kotamraju, spoke of Rosenbury’s “open heart and mind,” her “rock solid morals,” and her questionable choices of soda.
Columbia President Minouche Shafik, and President of Dartmouth College and Former Barnard President Sian Beilock, also joined Rosenbury during the inauguration.
Soon after Rosenbury was adorned with the ceremonial President’s Chain of Office, and took to the podium, a mask-wearing protestor shot up in the back rows of Riverside.
“You have more donors than students here. Shame, shame, shame on you!” The church went quiet as Rosenbury chuckled nervously behind the microphone. Classical music began to blare.
One by one, Pro-Palestinian Barnard alumni interrupted Rosenbury as they spoke of ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. “I am ashamed at how Barnard is weaponizing anti-semitism to shut down student protests,” one Jewish Barnard alum said.
“You talk about the autonomy of women, but what about the women in Gaza, the millions of women who have been displaced,” said another protestor. “Do they not deserve our feminism?” “You don’t care about students!” a third screamed.
Rosenbury acknowledged the protestors, but all were swiftly removed by staff. One Barnard professor could audibly be heard yelling “leave” and “go” repeatedly to the protestors.
There were also demonstrations directly outside Riverside Church, as well as on 116th Street and Broadway, where three protestors were arrested by the NYPD. “Rosenbury has been severe with freedom of expression at Barnard,” said a member of Columbia University Apartheid Divest outside Riverside. “We insist on the ability to speak freely as long as our speech is non-violent.”
“I would have preferred to just have a teach-in on academic freedom. I am here to support the students,” said Rebecca Jordan-Young, member of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Barnard, which charged Rosenbury and the administration for violating free speech and academic freedom last semester.
“I am told this happens at every Columbia and Barnard inauguration,” Rosenbury laughed nervously. “We are obviously not always going to see eye to eye.”
In what made up her speech following the protest, Rosenbury acknowledged how current events are “deeply felt within our community, creating fear, anger, confusion, distrust, and often helplessness.”
“We are at a nationwide inflection point,” she said. “We feel anxious for the future.”
Rosenbury’s solution to the “distrust” in the community, as well as to her own presidency, included championing higher education, empowering women, and engaging in civil discourse. “We will acknowledge and recognize where we are, identify the fears and the barriers that are in our way, and then we will walk through them bravely,” said the president.
President Rosenbury addressed her plans for Barnard. She spoke of facility renovations on campus such as those in Altschul Hall, and announced the summer 2024 opening of the Francine LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being. Rosenbury introduced a fall 2024 student-loan forgiveness program for Barnard students, and the college’s endowment goal to reach its first billion by 2030. The president also pledged Barnard’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2040, and the incorporation of AI education into the Barnard curriculum.
“We will go from the best kept secret to the best college in the world. Period,” Rosenbury said in her address.
The question lies in whether Rosenbury will be able to address the growing frustrations of Barnard students, faculty, and alumni in regard to the administration’s dealings with the ongoing violence in Israel-Gaza. Rosenbury seems confident that she will.
“I have known since my very first day on the Barnard campus, with every fiber of my being, especially over the last few minutes, that this is where I am supposed to be,” Rosenbury said in a fiery flourish, slamming her hand to the podium. “I am fearless when it comes to Barnard’s future.”
Outside, police sirens wailed and helicopters circled the campus.