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‘Spar’ring words

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Debora L. Spar is the current President of Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women, affiliated to Columbia University. Caroline Déclas caught up with Debora Spar, the firebrand educationalist and author, who was in the city recently to talk about the role of education and women in India.

You came to India with the intention of promoting education and empowerment of women. Can you tell us a little about your own experiences as a career driven woman?
I had a PhD in Political Sciences, but was unsure if I wanted to become a journalist or a diplomat. Finally I chose neither path, and became a professor at Harvard University instead. Later, I was chosen as President of Barnard School, which is a branch of Columbia University, where I am in charge of all the administrative activities & finding funds etc. I am committed to the empowerment of women because I myself have had first hand experience of discrimination, especially when I was invited for conferences myself. I was invited not because of my expertise but because they ‘needed a woman’ on the forum. I wanted to fight that. To be seen as the expert on a subject, instead of merely a woman. That was my driving factor.

Speaking of Barnard, it is a women’s only college. Is it an advantage or an inconvenience to huddle so many girls together?
Well this partition between boys and girls is historic. There was a time in the US when there were sex specific colleges. Nowadays co-ed colleges are commonplace, but we chose to keep this institute as it was. It is unusual but the girls have all that they need to accomplish themselves and bloom. Our school is independent but we are still linked with Columbia which is a great university. As it is a women’s only college, they get a chance at growing up in an environment that reinforces in their mind that women can be leaders as well. As an added bonus, they do not have to focus on the fact that in another place they would be seen as ‘the girl’ of the class. This allows them to find and develop themselves as individuals and not as sexual stereotypes.

You were attending the Leadership Workshop organised at Cathedral and John Connon School to interact with Indian students. What did you think about them and about education in general in India?
I think India has a long and huge historic commitment toward women’s education. I loved the school and I found the students attentive, engaged and serious. We are here to observe and learn about education in India and to partner with Indian universities.

Any Indian partnerships in the offing?
Well, we don’t have any partnership with colleges yet but were thinking about it and to figure what programs and sectors might be the most interesting for us and for Indians. I know that Mumbai is a cultural and artistic place with an active cultural life and we could definitely look for an institute specializing in arts and culture that would be interested in a one-semester-long exchange program as we currently have with other worldwide universities. We have already noticed an increasing number of Indian students that study an entire course abroad at our university but now we want to forge partnerships in the city as well.

What would you advise young girls who have to compete in a man’s world?
I would tell them to educate themselves as much as they can and to be the best at whatever they may do. You have to do better and better all the time to prove not only your intelligence but also your ability to compete with men in the same field. Women often do not dare to publicise their good work or to network with new contacts, which is something men have been observed to be good at. You have to make more people aware of your work; that is the only way it will ever be noticed.

In conclusion, what, according to you, is the role of education in a developing economy like India?
There is an obvious interaction in both ways between economy and education in this country. First, it is proved that the more you educate girls the higher will be the level of economic growth so the government has to invest in education and especially in education for women. This then is what we call a virtuous cycle. Once you get growth you can reinvest into the education system. The investment can be private or public, the most important thing is to simply focus on education and provide everyone with a high level of education.

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