During the first 46 years after her graduation, Carol Opton ’46 rarely ventured back to the Barnard. But this past fall, when Opton learned of a new memoir-writing class for Barnard alumnae taught by bestselling author Erica Jong ’63, she knew: “I’m doing this.” She’d devoured and delighted in Fear of Flying, Jong’s 1973 work, which Opton read shortly after it was published. She’d related to the protagonist so fully, she says, “The voice could have been mine.”
There may be many more stories like Opton’s in the coming months, as Dorothy Urman Denburg ’70 settles into her new role as vice president for college relations, in which she oversees alumnae affairs and career development. As vice president, her mission is threefold: “To more fully engage our alumnae in a broader range of activities than in the past,” she says, “to allow alumnae to take advantage of things at the College that are not necessarily related to a development or support request, and thirdly to increase interactions between alumnae and students.”
Sitting in a cheerful office at the Vagelos Alumnae Center where a quilt made from her favorite Barnard T-shirts adorns one wall, Denburg speaks with the warmth and wit one would expect from a college official known to host “Knitting with Dean Denburg” study breaks. The position of vice president for college relations is a new one for Barnard, as well as for Denburg, who is herself perceived as a kind of institution on campus, after serving as dean of the College from 1993 until 2010 and in a various other administrative roles since her own graduation. Very few people have yet managed to call her by her new title, she
says. Though she adds, laughing, “I’ve been introduced as Vice President Dean Denburg.”
In her new capacity, Denburg has initiated a raft of programs to draw alumnae back to Barnard. In addition to the memoir-writing course, recent and popular offerings have included a community service Reach-Out program for both alumnae and students (as part of new student orientation this past fall); a two-day Hudson River adventure last spring led by Barnard professors; and a series of lectures called Barnard@work, held in the midtown law offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, with the space and lunch donated by Helene Finkelstein Kaplan ’53. “When we did a survey of alumnae, everyone was united by their academic experience of the College,” explains Denburg. “We are trying to capture that as much as possible.”
In the near future, Denburg says she would like to add online classes for out-of-town graduates, and repeat the Barnard@work program with new as well as previous lecturers, which included Richard Pious, professor of political science; Randall Balmer, professor of religion; and Anne Higonnet, professor of art history. Denburg is hoping to find another alumna to provide space.
In an even more ambitious initiative, she is working with Senior Lecturer in English and Director of First-Year English Margaret Vandenburg, to design a course for alumnae, similar to what is now mandatory for first-year students. The coursewill likely include seminars, as well as lectures delivered by faculty of the English department distinguished in various literary periods. For alumnae beyond the metro area, Professor of English Mary Gordon ’71 will offer a literature course online with interactive components in fall 2012.
For Opton, the return to Barnard exceeded her high expectations. Jong proved to be a brilliant instructor, “listening, challenging, welcoming, and thoughtful.” A retired political consultant who had her own firm, Opton reports that she also found her classmates to be inspiring, and duringthe three, two-hour sessions, she says, “we bonded in a way that’s really weird.” In fact the group meshed so well, that they requested (and got) an extra class. The women spanned the generations, but “what we have in common is this intellectual curiosity and capacity,” says Opton, adding, “It transcends the years.”
—by Elicia Brown ’90