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Columbia College Today March 2004
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The Good Ol'
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Hitting the
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Strengthening the
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They All Lived
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Mignon Moore '92 and Nicole Marwell '90
Mignon Moore '92 (left) and Nicole Marwell '90, assistant professors in the sociology department, returned to their alma mater to teach.
Photo: Michael Dames

Celebrating Coeducation - College Honors Women in Academia on 20th Anniversary of Coeducation

By Shira Boss-Bicak '93

Ritu Birla '87
Ritu Birla ’87

Columbia College Women is honoring 10 alumnae who work in higher education with its 2004 Alumna Achievement Award as part of the University’s 250th anniversary and a celebration of the College’s 20th year of coeducation.

“We thought that one of the most fitting ways to celebrate the 20th anniversary of coeducation was to honor those who are perpetuating the great academic legacy of Columbia College,” says Bonnie Rosenberg ’91, chair of CCW’s Alumna Achievement Award Committee. Candidates were evaluated on the basis of their academic and professional achievements and service to their schools, professions and Columbia.

Amy Dooling '91
Amy Dooling ’91

The honorees will participate in a weekend-long celebration that kicks off on Thursday evening, April 1, with a dinner in Low Library that will feature keynote speaker Rosalind Rosenberg, professor of history at Barnard. Tickets are $35, $25 for young alumni (from the past five years) and free for students by lottery. Please RSVP to Kim Puchir in the Alumni Office: or (212) 870-2794, or online:

On Friday, some of the award winners will spend part of the day participating in their departments of expertise, meeting with students, and, in some cases, leading seminars. There also will be a social event for the students, honorees and alumni. Then, on Saturday, April 3, there will be a “Women in Higher Education” track of presentations at Dean’s Day, where several of the alumnae will speak on their areas of research.

Elizabeth McHenry '87
Elizabeth McHenry ’87

“Networking happens all the time with the good ol’ boys network. We’re trying to get networking going with the good ol’ girls network,” says Rebecca Castillo ’94, CCW chair.

Twenty years ago, the first women to attend Columbia College as regularly admitted students were completing their first year on campus and taking part in the school’s evolution.

“Columbia is a quirky combination of traditionalism and avant garde, which is reflected in how it went co-ed so late,” observes Ritu Birla ’87, assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto.

Jennifer Baszile '91
Jennifer Baszile ’91

A small group of those women — and of those in later classes — chose to pursue careers in higher education. While women have been cracking the glass ceiling in corporate environments, and in many academic fields women are receiving one-third to more than one-half of all doctorate degrees, female professors in tenured positions remain a rarity — not the rarity they were 20 years ago, but still a rarity.

“If asked, I tell students that we face all of the challenges — and some more — that working women face in this country,” says Jennifer Baszile ’91, assistant professor of history at Yale.

Many universities have released reports of a dearth of female professors, especially in the sciences and engineering. One noteworthy study was conducted from 1995–99 at MIT, where the number of tenured men in the six departments of the School of Science outnumbered tenured women 194 to 15.

Leslie Harris '88
Leslie Harris ’88

“Clearly, a key causal factor was the gender bias that women faculty experience as they progressed through their academic careers,” notes a summary from MIT’s Gender Equity Project. The results showed that women faculty at the university often were paid less, given less space and fewer resources, and received less recognition for professional accomplishments. MIT, along with other universities, including Columbia, has taken steps to recruit, retain and promote women faculty, but improvements are a work in progress.

This year, Columbia College Women will honor 10 alumnae professors in celebration of how far women have come at Columbia College and to recognize their achievements in a field that still struggles with gender equality. “A Celebration of Coeducation: Columbia College Salutes Women in Academia” will take place in Low Library on April 1.

Several of the honorees switched their intended courses of study while undergraduates and decided to become professors because of experiences in Columbia classrooms.

“The history department changed the path of my life,” Baszile says. She had been considering majoring in political science and going on to law school when she took a class, “History of the South,” taught by Professor Barbara Fields.

“From the first day, I was enthralled and intellectually stimulated by that class, excited and consumed by what she was saying, in a way I’d never been by anything,” Baszile says. “In that class, I decided I would become a historian and go to grad school, and I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”

Birla also went from pursuing law school to entering academia: “There were great mentors and great deans at Columbia who helped me come to a moment where I was making the classic choice of: ‘Am I going to law school, or am I going to pursue this thing that’s a little more risky?’ ”

Mignon Moore ’92, assistant professor of sociology at Columbia, was considering a business career when she took a sociology class and was immediately hooked, although not in a conventional way. She did not agree with all that she heard, but instead, “thought several issues weren’t addressed adequately,” she recalls. “I found myself thinking, ‘There’s still more work that needs to be done.’ ”

Moore was thinking about the field of sociology, but the sentiment applies to academia as a whole. “One of the advantages of women in coeducation is to offer our experiences and new approaches to existing ideas,” Moore says. “When you don’t have diversity, you’re missing important pieces of the puzzle but don’t know you’re missing them.”

Moore believes it is helpful for students to see women and minorities in positions of authority. In part, it was the exposure to inspiring women teachers on campus that opened Baszile’s mind to academia. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it was very powerful to have compelling examples of intellectual rigor who were women,” she says, referring to history professors Fields, Elizabeth Blackmar and others. “It empowered me and made me — naively — look past gender issues in academia.”

Virginia Cornish '91 (right, with Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis)
Virginia Cornish '91 (right, with Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis), assistant professor of chemistry, was the first graduate of the College hired to a full-time faculty position at Columbia and received the CCW Alumna Achievement Award in 1999.
Photo: Joe Pineiro

Despite the push for faculty diversity, women in academia face different and perhaps greater challenges than their male counterparts. Balancing a tenure track with planning a family is one challenge and seeking out senior women mentors and shouldering the responsibility to mentor others is another. Receiving tenure is, by the numbers, a more difficult achievement for female faculty. “The challenges are undeniable,” Baszile says.

One self-perpetuating factor is that power at universities is concentrated among the officers and tenured faculty, who still are by a large majority white and male, and who appear to favor promoting people like themselves.

“What I hear in selection committees is, ‘We already have a woman, so we don’t need another one.’ They’ve checked off that box,” says Abby Schrader ’87, associate professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.

All of the award winners interviewed stressed the importance of developing supportive networks at a university, in and beyond one’s department, with an emphasis on seeking out more senior women. On the flip side, because women do seek out women mentors, and there are fewer of them to go around, and the process becomes more time-consuming for those who wish to help those in the ranks below them, even graduate students and undergraduates.

The conversations also get more personal than they might with male professors. “[Students] want to talk about their dissertation, but also ask, ‘How’d you manage to have this baby?’” Baszile says. “It’s demanding, and there aren’t that many people whom they can ask the question.”

Not every woman in a higher position on campus wants to be a mentor. When Schrader was a graduate student at Penn, 40 percent of her department’s faculty was women. While that was great in terms of having role models, she notes, “Women were still reluctant to discuss these issues with grad students because it was seen as trivializing the academic pursuit.”

And it’s not just women who often feel comfortable turning to a woman professor for advice. “I’ve been highly sought after by students (male and female) across the University because I’m black, female and young, in that order,” Moore says. She adds, “I have a box of tissues on my desk where people who come in can reach it. You probably won’t see that on male professors’ desks.”

Being in demand extends to professional service in the form of committee work. Again, there are fewer women and minorities to go around, but because every committee ideally seeks out that perspective, women and minorities often end up devoting more time to service work.

Managing one’s time and balancing professional work, extracurricular work and home life is a challenge for women in academia much as it is for other professional women. Academic jobs are attractive in that they are flexible in terms of the daily schedule and having time outside the classroom. On the other hand, the hours can be never-ending, especially during the years in pursuit of tenure. The question of when to fit in a family, if desired, is big among women academics.

“There were theories floating around when I was in graduate school about when it would be a good time for a woman in academia to have a child,” Baszile says. She married Victor Bolden ’86 when she was in graduate school, but they waited to have their first child until last year, four years after Baszile had finished her doctorate and started teaching. Although she hears the tenure clock ticking and devotes much of her time to work, Baszile says she made a personal decision. “As much as I’m committed to my job and I’m passionate about my profession,” she states, “family comes first.”

That’s an easier decision to make if one has found the time to get married, if that is in one’s plans. Otherwise, by the time women have completed their graduate degrees and devoted themselves to the tenure track, Schrader points out, they are commonly between the ages of 35 and 40. “By then, it’s more difficult to find a spouse and to get pregnant,” she says. “Nobody talked about this when I was an undergraduate, in terms of what your life will be like.”

All of the Columbia alumnae being honored are active mentors, and having an honest dialogue with students about the challenges of women in academia — and ways to overcome them — is part of making progress. That there are fewer women than men in the upper ranks of many fields should not be discouraging, Moore maintains. “That’s not a reason to stay out of these fields. It’s a reason to go into them,” she says.

“A Ph.D. and a job in academia allow you to influence thinking,” Moore adds. “Your ideas make a contribution, and good research has an impact on thinking and literature, society and public policy.”

Contributing writer Shira Boss-Bicak ’93 is a freelance journalist in New York. Her most recent CCT cover story (January 2004) was about Provost Alan Brinkley.


Jennifer L. Baszile ’91, assistant professor of history, Yale

Ritu Birla ’87, assistant professor of history, University of Toronto

Amy D. Dooling ’91, assistant professor of East Asian
languages and cultures, Connecticut College

Dara E. Goldman ’92, assistant professor of Spanish,
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Leslie M. Harris ’88, associate professor of history, Emory University

Nicole P. Marwell ’90, assistant professor of sociology, Columbia

Elizabeth McHenry ’87, assistant professor of English, NYU

Mignon R. Moore ’92, assistant professor of sociology, Columbia

Mary Patillo ’91, associate professor of sociology and African-American studies, Northwestern

Abby M. Schrader ’87, associate professor of history,
Franklin & Marshall College




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