Through the Gates: A Forward Vision

Bret Silver, VP of Development, Photograph by Mark MahaneyIt is 9:30 on a bright morning in early autumn, but as is his usual style, Bret Silver has been diligently at work for more than an hour. He’s drafted a report on yesterday’s meeting with a potential donor; reviewed the College’s revenue charts; prepared for a board committee meeting; and tinkered with the finishing touches on an operating plan for the fiscal year.

As the new vice president of development at Barnard, working closely with the Board of Trustees and President Debora Spar, Silver is charged with overseeing the possibility of an ambitious capital campaign, with the goal of substantially increasing Barnard’s current endowment of $210 million. Elevating Barnard’s financial position through a capital campaign would enable the College to give greater support to its values and ambitions, such as enhanced financial aid, more endowed chairs, and physical-plant improvements. The College lags behind peer institutions, with sister schools Smith and Wellesley boasting endowments of $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion respectively. Silver notes, “Many institutions never leave campaign mode. In contrast, it’s been several years since Barnard completed its last capital campaign, which injects a large infusion of cash into the school’s endowment.”

Though he’s still familiarizing himself with Barnard, and with the academic community overall, Silver conveys a calm confidence. “Fund-raising is about interpreting the current vision of the College,” he says. “It’s about making people who haven’t been here for a while excited about supporting it.”

Silver is neither new to fund-raising nor to challenges. Since graduating from Colgate University in 1988 with a degree in history, he’s worked in development for three of New York City’s most prestigious artistic venues: Carnegie Hall, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and most recently, Jazz at Lincoln Center.

In the months since he began work at Barnard in June, Silver has conducted “a listening tour,” he says, engaging faculty, absorbing the vision of President Spar, and talking with students about how the institution transforms their lives. He’s also spent a fair amount of time off campus, meeting with current donors and other friends of the College. Silver notes, “the College will be well served by broadening its sight,” expanding its notion of the “logical constituency” to include not only parents, but also grandparents of students, as well as people outside the United States. “People who have watched students being transformed, enriched, and touched by Barnard—these people are part of our family,” he adds.

He also suggests reaching out to “individuals and companies for whom the unique work of the College is relevant. There are many corporations and organizations that care deeply about investing in the strength of young women.” And conversely, he explains, Barnard occupies a niche of sorts, with very few organizations like it.

Silver also would like to focus more heavily on international potential. “Our sisters and brothers have been doing this quite intently for a while,” he says. Together with Spar, Silver plans to visit Hong Kong and Seoul in December.

Though he doesn’t mention it immediately, Silver first fell in love with Columbia University some 20-odd years ago. During his junior year at Colgate, when friends ventured off to Japan and France, Silver moved to New York City. Columbia College, where he reveled in the vibration of urban life around the college experience, was “by far my favorite semester of my college years,” he recalls.

You might think that Silver, who minored in music at Colgate, would miss the energy of the arts, but no. And, if he is anxious about his mission and mandate in higher education, he doesn’t express it. His corner office overlooks a serene, otherworldly part of Manhattan: Morningside Heights with views of Union Theological Seminary, and, between apartment houses, vistas of Riverside Park. In the process of being personalized, his office space has yet to display his individual stamp—with the exception of a small blue Barnard bear “bank” on a long polished wood table, a continuous reminder of the task at hand.

- by Elicia Brown ’90