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Eye on Reunion

Every year at Reunion, a program of special events, workshops, and seminars spark the conversations and connections that make this Spring weekend so rewarding. This year’s program addressed contemporary issues on both national and more personal levels, and included a panel discussion about “The Great Recession,” along with workshops about managing finances, entrepreneurship, and finding a job. A frank Q&A session with Chair of the Board of Trustees and Pulitzer Prizewinning author Anna Quindlen filled the Held Lecture Hall; and a panel about the challenges and opportunities for women in science also drew a crowd. For those who couldn’t make it to Reunion this year, here are highlights of these events.

Living Out Loud: A Coffee Break with Anna Quindlen ’74

When Board Chair Anna Quindlen speaks, everyone listens. Few audiences were more rapt than the one that crowded into Barnard Hall’s Julius Held auditorium to hear the prize-winning journalist and best-selling author share her insights, wit, and passion on everything from the current state of feminism to the future of Barnard.

There was good news about the College. “In every way that counts Barnard is on firmer footing today than ever in its history,” said Quindlen, who added that “the students who are here, they love this place so much.”

She offered a more cautious note about the state of contemporary feminism. “I came to feminism the way a lot people come to social movements when they are young—purely out of self interest,” said Quindlen. The struggle has changed since her early career, she noted, moving “from courtrooms, corporations, and newsrooms to living rooms and bedrooms, to private venues where it all began.” The absence of overt discrimination—or questions about a young woman’s typing skills—masks the work that remains to be done.

“Young women today graduating from Barnard encounter subtle sexism of ‘far enough,’ not ‘no way,’” she said. “We women have been reinventing ourselves all our lives. We need to reinvent America. We need women leaders not because it’s good for women but because it’s good for everyone.”                 

Starting Your Own Business: Entrepreneurial Solutions

Given the current state of the corporate economy, it’s not surprising that being one’s own boss exerts a powerful appeal. “Entrepreneurship is a good story for women,” said Dr. Karen Vexler Hartman ’69, who, with her colleague Prof. Cynthia Thompson of Baruch College, led the workshop.

As Hartman, founder and president of LearnTech Associates, a management consulting firm, noted, “It’s a huge part of the economy. Small businesses are one of the ways to create jobs. Lots of women are preferring to run their own businesses.” Women own more than 41 percent of all privately held firms. And contrary to popular misconception, more than two-thirds of new businesses are still operating after two years.

For some, it’s a chance to pursue a more congenial lifestyle, or embrace more creative and fulfilling pursuits than are possible working for a corporation or someone else. For others, starting their own business affords an opportunity to develop a product or idea that serves an untapped market niche.

Hartman explained that entrepreneurs aren’t born, but are made—largely by their choice to become entrepreneurs. For most, the quest for autonomy and achievement are major motivations. “You have to be willing to have lots of ideas and be willing to experiment and beunfettered. You have to be driven,” saidHartman. “You have to want to do this.”

Women & Science Education

Barnard has a long history of contributing women physicians and scientists to the professions. Some distinguished alumnae shared their experiences and suggestions to encourage more women to enter the field at this panel. Hirschorn Professor and chair of environmental science Stephanie Pfirman, the moderator, noted, “President Obama talked about restoring science to its rightful place, and increasing the diversity and capability of science professionals. There are huge global challenges…. Women are still underrepresented, [and] there’s attrition after they obtain their PhDs.”

“It’s easier for people to see women as scientists now and that they should be paid as well as anyone.” For Helen Bernstein Berman ’64, a Board of Governors professor of chemistry at Rutgers, having a mentor who was “encouraging of my continuing a career” was critical. “Women are learning to express their needs better. In my early life, this wasn’t possible,” said Marian Bennett Meyers ’59, assistant professor of cardiology at the NYU Langone Medical Center.

Practical changes can improve prospects as well. “We have a task force on recruitment, retention, prevention of attrition, promotion, and awards,” said Ellen R. Gritz ’64, professor and chair of behavioral science and Olla S. Stribling Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “We have women on every single search committee. This encourages women to apply for positions.”

“Making the field more enticing from the beginning also matters,” observed Maria S. Rivera Maulucci ’88, assistant professor of education. “It’s not that we want everyone to become a scientist. We want every one to appreciate it. That needs to be part of the mission.”

The Great Recession

The road to economic recovery may still be a long one, and the economic landscape that emerges may look quite different from what’s gone before, but there’s no need to push the panic button. That was the message from a panel discussion of the current recession led by President Debora L. Spar, joined by Professor of Economics Perry Mehrling, and Assistant Professor of Political Science Kimberley Johnson. “This ‘Great Recession’ has affected all parts of society. This is a great learning opportunity to understand how the economy works, or doesn’t,” said Spar, who will teach a course on the Great Depression this fall.

She suggested that a positive result of the economic turmoil may be that Wall Street isn’t the career destination of choice for smart college graduates. Also, new graduates are reconsidering what it means to “live a happy and prosperous and successful life.” “We’re rethinking the role of government regulation, the scope of government, the scope of corporate, and what [makes] an attractive set of career and life goals,” said Barnard’s president.

The political landscape has shifted along with the economic one. For Professor Johnson the compelling question is whether President Obama’s election signals a fundamental, generational realignment of the sort that took place when Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan took office. “In the 18 to 21-yearold group, more identify as Democrats,” said Professor Johnson. “One consequence in the long term may be a strong Democratic party.”

Professor Mehrling, who is advising the government on the TARP, says there is no easy fix. “In the brave new world of modern finance, we replaced our comfortable, safe banking system with capital-market credit. The idea was to separate the funding of credit from the risk of the credit. We haven’t put Humpty Dumpty back together, and it won’t look like it did before. We are in the early days of putting the system back together.”

Financial Planning & Retirement

Begin saving early, be conscious of compound interest’s power, and construct a portfolio that balances risk against potential reward. “Financial planning is all about getting stuff …out of your head, and...into a plan, so that you can use your brain for its highest and best use, which is to make the important decisions,” explained instructor Vanessa Wilson to about 25 alumnae gathered in Milbank Hall at one of two financial workshops, which were samplers of the full courses offered by Barnard’s Financial Fluency program. A good plan could serve as a bulwark against anxiety. In the long run, it could be the difference, between destitution and comfort.

Wilson brought charts and graphs illustrating the benefits that consistent saving begun in one’s 20s will confer. Her examples established beyond all doubt: there is nothing abstruse or frightening about personal finance. It is all, as she put it, “addition, subtraction, and multiplication.” For instance, forgo a daily latte at $4.85 for a $2 drip coffee and put the difference into a jar, saving $960 in a year, and accumulate $12,000 in 10 years at five percent interest.

An alumna raised a challenge. “I think the assumption of a five-percent return is ridiculous today,” she said. Wilson acknowledged that something dire had just happened to the economy and everyone reaching retirement age, but she also reassured the class that historical trends proved that over decades, the market tends to grow.

In her retirement workshop, financial advisor and founder of LRN Associates Lynn Silverstein Najman ’72 urged alumnae to diversify their holdings. Her rule of thumb was that no one’s portfolio should consist of more than five percent of a single stock. “If you are holding mutual funds, do the work to find out what their top 10 holdings are,” she pleaded, noting that, “In December, I can’t tell you how many different mutual funds were all holding Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, and AIG.” She also acknowledged that “all the craziness that’s been going on,” did in fact call into question some of the conventional wisdom, but concluded that the age-old advice—over a longtime horizon, you can hold a higher proportion of stocks—remained sound. Higher-risk, higher-yield investments, such as equities, Najman told the audience, were important to hold in order to make sure that one’s portfolio grew at a rate faster than inflation.

Vickie Morgan ’69 attended both sessions and came away with the determination to ask more questions about her portfolio and take a more active hand in its management. “My level of knowledge is very low—that’s why I came here,” she said. “I do have a better understanding of the problems, and I know what questions to ask. The tendency is often to put one’s head in the sand and assume—it’s there, somebody’s managing it, and I don’t want to look at it. I see now how important it is to be engaged with your financial future.”

-by Merri Rosenberg '78 and Wesley Yang, illustrations by Jennifer Daniel

For a list of future Financial Fluency programs, visit alum.barnard.edu/financialfluency.