The Woman Who First Crashed the College Gates

Anna Kornbrot SEAS’74, ’75 was the College’s first alumna — eight years before the coeducational floodgates were opened.

Kornbrot’s yearbook photo from the 1975 Columbian.

When it was announced in January 1982, following years of intense, even hostile, negotiations with Barnard, that Columbia College would admit women, a certain doctor of dental medicine thought, “It’s about time!”

That doctor was Anna Kornbrot SEAS’74, ’75. Uniquely, she was already the College’s first alumna — eight years before the coeducational floodgates were opened.

“I don’t wear a sign,” Kornbrot says 44 years later. “I don’t need validation. But I do feel it deeply.”

In the early 1970s, “women’s lib” was exploding. Bras were burning, the Equal Rights Amendment was white-hot and the fairer sex wanted a fairer shake at all-male bastions of higher learning. “I was politically attuned,” Kornbrot says. “I did have my ERA T-shirt.” Enrolled in Columbia Engineering, she read the work of feminist scholar Catharine Stimpson, with whom she took classes at Barnard.

But Kornbrot, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors who settled as garment workers in Flushing, didn’t see herself as a trailblazer. Rather, she was after a healthy dose of liberal arts. “I valued my education so much that I wanted to get as much out of it as possible,” she recalls. “I didn’t want just math and science.”

She got her wish through a loophole in the undergraduate degree options. During junior year, she noticed in her course catalog something called a 4:1 program. Under this arrangement, an Engineering student could earn a B.S. in four years and, with enough liberal arts credits — including the four basic Core Curriculum courses — also graduate with a College B.A. a year later. Nowhere was it written that women were ineligible.

So Kornbrot walked into 208 Hamilton Hall, armed with the relevant passage. “The secretary looked at the catalog, looked at me, and said, ‘I think the dean is going to want to talk with you.’”

A minor kerfuffle ensued. “We would have to build you a separate gym!” fretted Provost Wm. Theodore de Bary ’41, GSAS’53. Various administrators suggested that Kornbrot get her B.A. from Barnard.

Kornbrot’s most memorable sit-down was with Dean Peter Pouncey and Associate Dean Michael Rosenthal GSAS’67. “Pouncey took a diabolical delight in the whole thing,” she says. “You could see the wheels turning about how he would deal with Barnard.” (For years, that school’s administrators had resisted College coeducation, fearing among other reasons that its applications would suffer, perhaps fatally.)

Rosenthal was another matter. “It was an interrogation. He was poking at me,” Kornbrot says. “He said things like, ‘Are you looking to disrupt the University?’ Now, I’m a patient person, but he pushed my buttons. So I finally said, ‘Yes, I want to disrupt the University!’ Pouncey was laughing his head off.”

(Asked to recall the conversation, Rosenthal, chuckling, thinks he may simply have been needling Kornbrot. “If she has those memories, what can I say? But it’s inconceivable that that was me. We were delighted at the prospect of being able to pull the rug out from under Barnard’s intransigence.”)

The anticlimax came in a letter dated June 13, 1974. Columbia College admissions director Michael Lacopo wrote to Kornbrot, “I am delighted to inform you that a joint committee representing the School of Engineering and the College has granted your request for transfer to the College beginning September 1974.”

With her Engineering B.S. in hand, Kornbrot began her single year in the College amid little fanfare. “I wasn’t looking for anything other than a seat in the classroom and to just do my thing. I savored every one of those courses.” The finale was Class Day, when the 5-foot-2 Kornbrot marched up to receive her diploma. “You could see people’s eyes watching this procession and then all of a sudden you saw all these double takes: ‘Is this a short guy with really long hair?’”

Kornbrot’s 4:1 loophole was almost immediately amended so that female applicants would be admitted exclusively to Barnard. One other woman, Ann Candy — now Dr. Ann Stein — was grandfathered in, earning an Engineering B.S. and a College B.A., both in 1978.

Kornbrot went on to dental school at the University of Pennsylvania where, in her fourth year, two of her male classmates — but not she — were granted interviews for a residency program in oral and maxillofacial surgery. She complained to the dean, who told her, “‘You’re absolutely right. You are being discriminated against.’ Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said, ‘Now what?’” Following determined lobbying, she got her residency.

Today, Kornbrot (who earned a D.M.D. in 1979) practices in Philadelphia and teaches at both Penn and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “I like surgery,” she says. “It’s hands on. It’s discrete. You have a problem, you solve the problem and you move on to the next patient.”

A footnote: Kornbrot was unsure what she was going to do if the College wouldn’t admit her. “I really wanted to go,” she says. “But how far was I willing to go? Was I willing to go to court? Would I sue the University? All this stuff was swimming through my head.”

Her husband-to-be, Barry Klayman ’74, suggested she consult a particular professor at the Law School. “I asked her, ‘What are my options? What are my chances?’ She said, ‘Schools have so much discretion in who they can take. Don’t pursue it. You won’t get in.’”

The professor was future Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg LAW’59.