Debora Spar

Single Sex Education: A Challenge or A Boon to Equality?

VTR Date: January 12, 2009

Barnard College President Dr. Debora L. Spar discusses single-sex education.


GUEST: Dr. Debora L. Spar
VTR: 01/12/2009

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today, Debora L. Spar, is the new President of Barnard College…to which she has come only recently after a long association with Harvard, having received her doctorate in government there and having taught and written at the Harvard Business School.

Though some of it will remain unremarked, my own indebtedness to Barnard is, to be sure, quite considerable: having gone to Columbia College right across the street; having faced so many illustrious Barnard graduates – from Margaret Mead to Anna Quindlen – right across this table; and having – fifty years ago and more – borrowed this program’s very title and theme from Barnard’s redoubtable Dean Virginia Gildersleeve, who many years before was reported to have admonished her students, “Ladies, always keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”.

Also, when Board of Trustees Chair Anna Quindlen, Barnard 1974, announced today’s guest’s appointment as President, she said, quote, “The 11th leader of the College must be someone with considerable gifts of both mind and heart, a charismatic intellectual, deeply committed to the value of single-sex education for women”.

All of which takes me back nearly a generation to early 1991, when Anna Quindlen herself joined me here on The Open Mind, and six months later, when Nan Keohane, then President of all-women Wellesley College, did as well … with the title of our conversations, “Single Sex Education: A Challenge Or A Boon To Equality”.

Well, I’ve made that the title of our Open Mind conversation today, as well. For on one side of Broadway uptown at Columbia University here in New York, my college has become co-educational.

But nothing so radical at Barnard!

And at her Presidential inauguration across the street a few months ago, today’s Open Mind guest handsomely celebrated “choice” – particularly the choice her Barnard students have made of single-sex college education.

And I want to ask President Spar just why they have … and would she? Would you now?

SPAR: Well, it’s very hard to put yourself back in the shoes of being an 18 year old deciding where to go to college. But I think times, obviously have changed in many different ways between when I was choosing where to go to college in 1980, and where we are right now.

When, when I was making the choice of where to go to college, the world of, of higher education had really just opened up for young women. It was only recently after the … before the time when I started looking that women could, in fact, apply to just about every college in the country.

So I think there was a great excitement among women my age and a little bit older than me in being able to look at this entire menu of college opportunities and grab whatever appealed to you. I think what we’re seeing today among young women is this is a generation that’s grown up already with the idea of almost infinite choice. That they know from the time they become even aware of the college scene that they can go to literally any college the country, in the world.

And so the young women today, I think, are thinking much more carefully about what a single-sex education offers them, in addition to what it used to offer which was simply a place to go to school.

HEFFNER: And what do you think … when they make that choice … are the benefits of the choice?

SPAR: I, I think there’s, I think there’s many benefits. First of all I should say I think Barnard is in a pretty unique position in all of American higher education. Because in, in many ways it is the best of all possible worlds. It is an all women’s college which is also in partner relationship with a fabulous co-educational research university. So when young women go to Barnard, they’re getting the benefits of single sex education, which has an awful lot to do with, with not making gender irrelevant, but making gender less important in terms of leadership positions.

So when you look at Barnard, of course, the President of the student government is a woman. Of course the Editor of the school paper is a woman. Of course the brightest kid in class is a woman. Because it’s an all woman environment. And we do know, both anecdotally and empirically, that when young women in this environment, where they are just naturally going to be the, the leaders in every, in every context, it gives them a confidence that is going to … that is going to serve them very, very well later on in life.

By the same token I, I think Barnard is, really … for nothing else, but by virtue of its location and it’s historical relationship … is by no means saying that its young women will live in a bubble.

You know, Barnard women interact every day, not only with men, but with a huge cross section of, of American life. And so they really are getting the advantages of, of, of single sex education, of being in, in a small classroom, in a liberal arts classroom with a faculty that is largely, though not entirely female. With an administrative structure that’s largely, but not entirely female. But then they’re interacting every day with, if you will, the world very much outside the Ivory Tower.

HEFFNER: But, of course, in what you have written most recently in an OpEd piece in the … online at the Washington Post … choice is a very real interest of yours.

And I wonder, what are the changes and I’m not talking about going back to my day at Columbia, that’s just too far back. What has “choice” meant to American women, do you feel?

SPAR: “Choice” is a … has, has brought a much more complicated set of issues than I think it might appear. So it’s very easy to say the more choice the better, the more options, the better. And I think for certain that’s true.

So young women right now can choose to go, you know, depending upon their abilities … as I mentioned earlier … to any college they want. They can choose any career they want. They can choose the sexuality they want. They can choose how many children to have. They can choose, through complicated means, the gender of their children. There really is this endless variety of choice.

But what I’ve, I’ve argued in this recent piece and in the Inaugural piece and elsewhere is that I think that there’s a reckoning that comes with choice. Because having the ability to make choices I think also imposes, or should at least should impose a responsibility. What, what do I want to do with my life? If I can be a Supreme Court Justice, or an investment banker, or a social worker or an elementary school teacher … what do I want to be? What do I see as my responsibility?

And I think one of the things that, that we do well to advise our college students today, regardless of where they’re in college, is to really think hard about what they want to do with their lives, rather than just sort of falling into, or getting eaten up by this overwhelming, really, array of choices that confronts them.

HEFFNER: But you see I was going to ask about … the down side if choice and what you’re talking about is still the upsides …

SPAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of choice. Do you see any downside?

SPAR: Well, I think there’s a confusion that comes with choice. I mean I, I think to some extent it’s hard for college graduates today … putting aside the recent financial crisis for a moment … for both men and women to decide that sort of age old question of, you know, what I want to be when I grow up. Because there are so many options. Ahem, this is a generation that’s grown up affluence. So they really, they’ve come … become aware or accustomed to sort of … eating whatever they want, going wherever they want and, and not really having to think through what it is they want to do with their lives.

And, to some extent, that’s a wonderful thing. People’s lives are longer. I think it’s great if young people take their twenties and into their thirties to look at different options. But I think people also have to take responsibility for their choices. And I think women in particular because in many cases, the choices that women face, as they get older, and build their lives are … remain more complicated choices.


SPAR: Well, I always, I always tell the, the anecdote when I was growing up there was a commercial for “Charlie” perfume, which you may or may not recall, it was a very attractive commercial, with a very attractive young woman going off … clearly to work … with a young child, and a briefcase and it was clear the child was going to be taken care of and the briefcase was going to be taken care and everything was going to work out.

HEFFNER: She had everything.

SPAR: She had everything. And I think women of a certain age, my age, really grew up believing that we could have everything.

HEFFNER: Helen Gurley Brown used to tell us all that.

SPAR: That’s right. And I think it turns out that it’s a little bit harder than that. That having a family and a stable marriage and a career and a personal life is complicated, it’s a balancing act. And I think … and it’s very hard, particularly for young women, but I think it’s, it’s important for women to realize that they are going to have to plan their lives a little bit.

Even to something I’ve written about in my most recent book. We’ve had massive improvements in reproductive technologies. So women can control their reproductive fate in a way that was impossible before. But it’s still not infinite.

And I think we are realizing that even though women can delay child bearing consciously later and later in life, there’s still a point where Mother Nature intervenes and says, “Gee, it’s too late.

HEFFNER: Well, I noticed before, when you talked about choice, you said even the sex of their children. And I was going to pick that up and ask you whether that’s a plus or that’s a minus …

SPAR: Well, this is some …

HEFFNER: … or how much of both?

SPAR: … yeah, well this is something … I should say, I’m actually … I’ve started writing a paper on this right now, so I’ll come back in six months and, hopefully, have a more polished answer for you.

But there are technologies out there right now which will enable … would be parents … for a price, to chose the gender of their child. Now in some cases this can be, I think, close to an unmitigated blessing. Those cases being the relatively small number where parents know they’re at risk of passing on a disease …


SPAR: … hemophilia which … so if you know you have hemophilia, I think most people would agree choosing a girl is, is a wise and moral choice. If you’re choosing to have a son, as we know some cultures do because sons are seen as having more value than daughters, I think that’s a very problematic choice. And I think that’s one personally that I would see as something we should fight against. There’s also, you know, a grayer middle ground. What happens if a family has had four boys, they’re tired of going to hockey games and the Mom desperately wants a little girl to take to ballet practice. Well, I don’t know … is, you know, is that a choice that we, as a society are comfortable with?

HEFFNER: What are you telling your students up there about that question?

SPAR: Well, I’m telling my students I don’t, I don’t propose to, you know, suggest morality for anybody. But these are things they should, they should think about. Not only in their own decisions, but societally. Because I think what, what’s happened as a result of some of the reproductive technologies we’ve unleashed, are things that used to be massively intimate and personal decisions are now being carried out at such a level that I think they actually have societal implications.

And I think as a society we need to look at this. Because if, I choose to have a boy or a girl, it’s not such a big deal, it’s one extra kid of, you know, one sex or the other.

But if everyone of my age or of a particular age in the United States decides to have either a boy or a girl then clearly we do have massive societal implications. And you’re starting to see little bits of this in other parts of the world, where the technologies are still much cruder, but you really are seeing a shift in gender patterns.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I’ve been interested, fascinated by reading some of the things you’ve written … not just about the Internet, not just about communications, but about this question that we’re discussing now and you do bring in the matter of the dollars and how much they add to what the sense that it all makes.

SPAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And when you spoke before about the impact of our present economic situation upon students. Are you talking at Barnard about a certain level, financial level, economic level, of young American and what does the question of dollars and cents, how does it impact upon the development of these young people and the moral questions that they face?

SPAR: Well, I think there are so many different dimensions of this … so let me just pick up on one of them. And I say this with the caveat that I’ve been teaching math or economics for the past 17 years of my life, so that’s going to, you know, color my view here.

I think it’s, it’s incumbent upon all citizens to understand the basics of the economy in which we live. And I think one of the things we’re facing right now is everybody was sort of the beneficiary of this rah-rah economy we’ve had for the past ten years without really understanding the underlying mechanics of it and in fact how risky it all was.

I think every student graduating from college, every student graduating from high school should understand the basics of, of economics and of personal finance.

Can I afford this mortgage or not? Can I afford this credit card payment or not? I think we’ve gotten away from the nuts and bolts, if you will, of actually understanding our own economy. And that’s a very dangerous thing.

I think as a society we, we correctly worry about, do our students know enough math, do they know enough science? Are we teaching them, you know, enough of the sort of moral and ethical principles? I think we also need to be teaching basic economics because the more people who are aware of it, the better buffered we’ll all be against these crises that we know, you know, we are still vulnerable to.

HEFFNER: Are the kids … you’ll forgive me for saying “kids” … are the young people … are the college students as much unaware of these things as it sounds from what you say?

SPAR: I, I think it’s not just college students, I think … you know economics is rightfully called “the dismal science”. It’s not necessarily the most exciting thing to study when you’re 18 or 19 and looking at things like the balance of payments and the US current account deficit is … can be pretty stultifying. But it turns out that these things really affect us.

And one of the things I, I’ve noticed in, in some of my teaching is that non-American students tend to understand economics much better than Americans, particularly if they’re coming from a developing world. If you’re coming from Brazil or Argentina, where you’ve lived through economic crises, you understand them.

The United States has been incredibly lucky over the past 20 years, we really haven’t had major economic crises. And so we, we haven’t had the need to understand them nearly as well as people growing up in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Indonesia. I think we need more of that.

HEFFNER: What’s happening on the college campus? And what’s the impact of this?

SPAR: Well, it’s a little early to, to tell, to be honest. I think what we’re seeing on college campuses … a number of things. I think first of all and understandably, students are worried about their futures in a way we haven’t seen in quite some time.

HEFFNER: Are they coming back for the Spring semester in the same numbers?

SPAR: Ahem … all I … I, I don’t know the numbers broadly. I think what we’ve seen at Barnard is a few more tough cases than, than normal. But not, thank goodness, any kind of an avalanche of, of bad news. But I suspect the colleges across the country .. families are being pinched, students are going to feel it and, and I, you know, I think we’ll see the numbers coming in over this year and the next. I think, you know, the good news is that I think Americans do, really see the value and the importance of a college education. And so, you know, it’s not seen as a luxury good that people are willing to say, “Well, you know, forget it, I won’t’ go to … won’t send my kid to college.” That commitment remains, but it’s going to be harder.

And I think colleges … of course, it’s a double whammy because just as the economic terms are getting tougher for the students, they’re also getting, if anything, tougher for the colleges, most of which have really seen their endowments get a hit, take a hit this year. And so it’s … these two things colliding are just making it, making it a much tougher financial situation for this year.

HEFFNER: What’s the impact going to be?

SPAR: Well, I don’t mean to hedge, I think we really don’t know. You know it maybe pretty minimal that even though the endowments have good a huge hit, endowments pretty much, for the most part, stay in the bank. And so the, the accounts in the bank are lower, but the college is pretty much moved the same way. Or it could be bigger … we know … we might see more kids taking a year or two off … maybe trying to ride out the recession and then coming to college. Which I think might be tough, but wouldn’t be a, a crisis. We might see more kids choosing to go to state colleges …


SPAR: … rather than private colleges. But even that’s, it’s not quite as, as crystal as it might appear because the State colleges are also feeling the pinch. So it, so it may be that the State schools actually are raising tuition more than the private schools do. We just, we just don’t really have that handle on it yet.

HEFFNER: I want to … I want to watch the time and go back to this OpEd piece that you wrote just last week … about women, really, you call it, you call the piece “One Gender’s Crash”. And you write here: “Whether it be from a protectiveness born of biology or a reticence imposed by social norms, women may be less inclined than men to place the kind of bets that can get them in real trouble.” And you’re talking here, you’re writing here about women’s role in this economic crisis, this downfall that we’ve been talking about. And you’re sort of saying, “Hey, we women weren’t there in the first place. You guys wouldn’t give us the right jobs …

SPAR: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … wouldn’t put us in power positions. So this is not our fault.” You almost write, it seems to me, as an old-timer as sexist piece here. Explain yourself.

SPAR: Certainly. First of all … sexist as a word is such a loaded word now …


SPAR: … that, you know, sexist, is a four-letter word, despite …


SPAR: … having several more letters. What I’m arguing for and I realize it’s, it’s a delicate thing to argue … but I, I’ll stick by it, is to say “There almost certainly are differences between men and women.”.

I mean let’s start with biology. I don’t think it’s sexist to say that women can have babies and men can’t. That’s, that’s an empirical fact … it may change at some point, but probably not for some time.

Are there other differences in, in men and women? I would suspect that most people who’ve been parents to children of both genders …

HEFFNER: As you have.

SPAR: … say … as I have … yeah, you know clearly there’s a huge range of individual variation and there’s, you know, there’s kids arrayed on all ends of the spectrum. But in the aggregate, in general, are there some traits that tend to be more associated with girls than with boys, more associated with women than with men. I think there are. And, and my take on this is that this is not a normative issue. I don’t see … I think we’ve gotten past the point where it’s useful any more to get into debates about, you know, which … men better than women … women better than men. But I think there may be differences and I think if we can sort of rationally, and I speak here as an academic … someone who’s life is based in research say, “yeah, are there differences in the way, for instance, women perceive risk versus men?”

And there’s now an emerging body of, of literature … that says there are. Women perceive risk differently.

HEFFNER: And avoid it.

SPAR: Well, different kinds of risks, is does appear and, and I’m speaking … this is not my area of academic expertise, that in … that women are less inclined to take big bets. Whether you look at them in terms of how they trade their own stocks …


SPAR: Women are more conservative … a, a couple of studies have looked at this … than are men. Women are less likely to engage in certain very risky sports activities … pick a risky sports activity.

HEFFNER: Hopefully.

SPAR: Well … you know, they, they … and again I’m not making a, a normative … maybe it’s a good thing to take big risks … certainly our financial system is based, is based in large part … on risk taking. But I, I … the argument I’m making ultimately … and the argument I fervently believe in is an argument about diversity.

That if women look at a certainly set of problems differently than men, then insofar as you’re engaged in those sets of problems, it’s really good to get a diversity of opinion. And if, you know, if I were running a financial firm right now, I would want to make sure I had old people and young people and female people and male people and Black people and White people because I would want to get that diversity of opinion.

That’s something I’ve done in, you know, in my own administrative world. I think getting a diversity of opinion is almost always a good thing.

And if you look at what’s happened on Wall Street over the past decade and you look at the folks at the top, they pretty much are of the same social set, racial set and, I think, any time you have a group of people who are so much of, of one type, you will tend to get one type of decisions, rather than decisions based on the diversity of opinion.

HEFFNER: Tell me how this relates to the business crash.

SPAR: Well, I think we’re going to be looking at the business crash for decades to come and I certainly don’t think there’s any one cause or even any three causes that one can ever say were completely responsible.

But if you look at some of the decisions that were made … sort of in extremis, if you will … they involved an awful lot of risk taking … big risks as we now know. Selling mortgages that could never be afforded by the people who were buying them. Bundling those mortgages in ways that were unsustainable. And virtually no scrutiny of those risks.

It does appear and, and again the, you know, the evidence here is, is small but I think worth, worth examining. That women, perhaps because they’ve been outsiders to power for longer are more inclined to say, “Hang on, is that really a good idea?”

You know, we, we know … we had one very interesting case that many people, in addition to me have commented on. A woman who is in the Commodity Futures Trading Commission …


SPAR: … saying, “Hang on this, this doesn’t look like an activity … all of these derivatives … that should be unregulated.” And she was pretty much laughed out of the room.

HEFFNER: You’re not mentioning morality …making judgments about investments and procedures that have to do with “is it right or wrong”.

SPAR: Well, morality is … in these cases is, is very, very fuzzy. I mean what is a moral investment strategy? You know, some religions hold that any kind of interest is immoral. So, I … yeah, I’m not quite sure that the morality of Wall Street is. I think for certain morality is telling the truth … is making sure that there’s no lying going on, there’s no fraud going on and for sure it is now becoming clear there were instances of fraud.

HEFFNER: That’s what I’m talking about.

SPAR: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I’m talking about pushing credit cards on your students …

SPAR: Right.

HEFFNER: … and mine.

SPAR: Yes. (Laughter) Right.

HEFFNER: That sort of morality.

SPAR: Well, again, I, I, I would draw a line between saying … ahem … you know here’s an investment product that we guarantee you has no level of risk, when in fact, you know there’s a level of risk, that’s an outright lie. Versus saying “Here, take this credit card at 23% interest.”

We know they’re both bad things. One is an outright lie, the other is, is perhaps playing on, on people’s lack of information.

But I think, and again, I say this carefully, but, but I think it’s something we should be looking at empirically. It appears women are a little bit more inclined to say, “Hang on …”.

HEFFNER: Dr. Spar you’re, you’re leading me down the garden path because I want to ask you so much more about this and I want you to promise to come back so that we can continue to talk. I don’t have to say viva la difference … but I do want to know what you think about the differences, the sexual differences, the gender gap. But thank you so much for joining me today.

SPAR: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.