Alumni Profile: Judith Shapiro

October 11, 2021

Ph.D. ’72, Anthropology

When Judith Shapiro became head of the Teagle Foundation this past July, the former Barnard president took the reins of an organization that for nearly eighty years has given grants to institutions of higher learning and research with an eye toward improving undergraduate learning in the arts and sciences. Which seems only fitting, since Shapiro herself has spent the last forty-odd years trying to advance the same goals.

Many of the Foundation’s efforts are aimed at bolstering the quality of teaching, a vocation that is in Shapiro’s blood. Her mother taught Latin and supervised the high school libraries in the New York City public school system, the same system Shapiro herself attended (at PS 29 in Flushing Meadows, Queens), along with classmates such as Jonathan Cole, future sociologist and provost of Columbia, and Stephen Jay Gould, future paleontologist and public intellectual. “I used to play teacher when I was a kid,” she says.

Nonetheless, it took her some time to find her subject. Armed with a degree in history and French from Brandeis University, Shapiro entered the graduate program in history at the University of California, Berkeley in 1963. She quickly realized that the life of a professional historian was not for her, however, and dropped out after only a month—a decision that cost her a front-row seat at the landmark student protests of the Free Speech Movement just one year later. Back in New York City, a friend hipped Shapiro to the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and she applied to the graduate program in anthropology at Columbia, where she was admitted on scholarship despite never having taken a single course in the subject.

Despite the false start, it didn’t take long for Shapiro to get up to speed. By 1965 she was doing “salvage ethnography”—fieldwork aimed at preserving cultures on the brink of extinction—among the Northern Paiute of the Great Basin, the massive watershed that lies between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range. A few years later she undertook a series of studies of indigenous groups in Brazil. Her research among the Yanomami yielded some of the earliest anthropological analysis of gender differences—not because of any ideological motivation (“second-wave feminism hadn’t yet happened,” Shapiro recalls), but because the differences between the lives of Yanomami men and women were simply too obvious to ignore.

Gender would prove to be a defining issue in Shapiro’s professional life. In 1970 she became the first woman appointed to the anthropology department at the University of Chicago. It was, she says, an overwhelming, even paralyzing experience to be a junior female faculty member adrift in a sea of distinguished senior male colleagues. Though she hadn’t yet finished her dissertation, for example, Shapiro suddenly found herself ensconced in the office previously occupied by the revered cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In what she now describes as an extremely wise professional move, Shapiro moved on to Bryn Mawr in 1975, discovering in the process “the wonderful world of women’s colleges”—a world in which she would spend the bulk of her working life.

Though she claims never to have considered a career in administration, Shapiro was named dean of the college and then its first provost. The role she played in helping to establish and strengthen interdisciplinary programs and cooperative arrangements with other top-tier schools such as Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania helped attract the attention of Barnard College, where she was appointed president in 1994. Coming to Barnard, she says, was like choosing a spouse: in addition to being a close sister college of Bryn Mawr, Barnard had the advantage of being located in her native New York, and its relationship to Columbia felt more like a genuine partnership than the kind a small women’s college might be expected to have with a major research university across the street.

Shapiro likens the role of a college president to that of a small-town mayor; her primary role, as she saw it, was to hold the Barnard community together and to “hear the song of the institution”—to see its distinctiveness and to understand its mission. When she stepped down in 2008, Shapiro was credited with tripling Barnard’s endowment and doubling the number of applications it received, refining its curriculum, and ramping up its commitment to educational technology. (One of her first moves was to get all of the members of her senior staff on email, at a time when the new communication platform was far from ubiquitous.) Yet Shapiro herself dismisses much of the praise she has received as “leadership fetishism,” lays most of the credit for her alleged accomplishments at the feet of her colleagues, and claims that being a university or college president is “an endless opportunity for screwing up.” (Along with self-deprecating humor, traces of Shapiro’s anthropological training can also be discerned in her take on the college presidency—for example, when she describes the “rituals of opposition” that inevitably arise between faculty and administration.)

When she was first asked if she might like to be a candidate for the Teagle presidency—she was a member of the search committee at the time—Shapiro said no. She was content to teach part time at Barnard and to pursue her other interests, from singing and knitting to spending quality time with her poodle, Nora. Ultimately, however, she found the prospect of leading an institution devoted to improving the quality of undergraduate learning—and, by extension, the quality of undergraduate teaching—to be irresistible; and when the board asked her again, she acquiesced.

“This foundation is about my life’s work,” says Shapiro. As president, Shapiro would like to maintain Teagle’s recent emphasis on pedagogical innovation and assessment of student learning, but she would also like to promote curriculum revision and greater sharing of information and material between teachers at different institutions. As researchers, Shapiro says, faculty members are used to thinking of themselves as part of a community. As teachers, however, they are not: alone in their classrooms, they tend to assume that they must build their courses alone as well. But that need not be the case.

As an example, Shapiro points to Reacting to the Past, a course developed by Barnard history professor Mark C. Carnes with Teagle support that has students explore classic texts through elaborate role-playing games. Though born in an elite liberal arts college for women, the course has over the years been expanded and refined with the help of a consortium of colleges and universities around the country, and now community colleges are beginning to show interest in it as well. Borrowing or adapting courses developed by others isn’t a mark of failure, says Shapiro, and it can help teachers use their time more efficiently, freeing them up to more effectively mentor their students.

Above all, Shapiro remains committed to continuing the Foundation’s commitment to improving undergraduate student learning, which she believes is inextricably linked to the quality of teaching. That, in turn, is why she feels it is important to back the kinds of programs that the Teaching Center is developing and that Teagle is encouraging at other colleges and universities across the country.

“When you develop faculty as teachers,” Shapiro says, “you’re supporting students.”

— By Alexander Gelfand