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Remarks at the Installation of Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock

Friday, February 9, 2018, Riverside Church, New York City

Welcome, faculty, alumnae, students, staff and distinguished guests.

I bring greetings on behalf of the Seven Sisters: Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley.

We are delighted to join you today in celebrating Barnard’s eighth president, Sian Leah Beilock.

When I was asked to speak on behalf of the Seven Sisters, I will confess I felt a bit nervous. Perhaps I was afraid I might choke.

As you may be able to guess, help was close at hand.

I didn’t have to look any further than Sian’s first book—Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

Choke provides tips to ensure success under stress.

The most resonant tip for me is the first: reaffirm your self-worth by reflecting on the aspects of your life of which you are proud.

When I did the exercise, I realized with delight that many of the elements of my life of which I am most proud are those I share with Sian:

We are both psychologists.

We both work at the nexus of practice, policy and research.

And we are both blessed to lead preeminent women’s colleges.

Barnard College holds a special place in the evolution of women’s education.

One might expect that those of us based in Northampton or Wellesley or South Hadley might hold special reverence for our cosmopolitan city sister, and that’s true.

Barnard boasts a particularly dynamic playground, New York City.

City girl or country girl, each of the Seven Sisters takes enormous pride in our alumnae.

Barnard lays claim to the pioneering work of Muriel Fox, co-founder of the National Organization for Women, and the glass-ceiling-breaking service of Jeane Kirkpatrick, the first woman to serve as United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

Yes, Barnard graduates keep changing the world.

From Laurie Anderson to Twyla Tharp; from Jhumpa Lahiri to Joan Rivers; from Margaret Mead to Martha Stewart.

The list goes on. Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Boo, Edwidge Danticat, Delia Ephron, Maria Hinojosa, Anna Quindlen—and Academy Award nominee Greta Gerwig, class of ‘06.

Barnard graduates have shaped our culture in myriad ways.

Barnard has also shaped, and been shaped by, our sisterhood.

Ella Weed, a graduate of Vassar and a New York teacher, was instrumental in founding Barnard in 1899 and affiliating with Columbia College in 1900.

The first dean of Barnard was Emily James Smith, a Bryn Mawr graduate. It was she who renegotiated the terms of the Columbia agreement, securing representation on the University Council and opening Columbia graduate courses to Barnard students.

All told, nine of the 12 Barnard leaders graduated from a women’s college, including one from Smith, Laura Drake Gill.

Over the course of more than 125 years, Barnard has shaped higher education for women, and with President Beilock, Barnard is poised to continue that important work.

President Beilock is a cognitive scientist whose research has wide relevance and great impact. For example, she has sat on a National Research Council panel on the topic of decision making and stress. Last year, she was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Troland Research Award, a significant honor.

She has shed new light on how psychological barriers inhibit success in stressful circumstances; further, she has identified simple ways to manage nerves—whether it is while competing in sports, studying for a test or delivering a speech.

While every page of President Beilock’s Choke is worthy of your attention, I want to return to its subtitle: Getting It Right When You Have To.

All of the leaders here today know the pressure of needing to get it right.

Needing to get it right despite limited information, or insufficient time to fully weigh alternatives. 

Needing to get in right, with strongly opposing viewpoints from advisers when both have merit.

Needing to get it right is tricky business, and yet ... we have to.

Whether leading a college, a company, a platoon, or a lab, leadership is not easy. It is arguably getting harder.

We lead in an environment beset by deep societal divisions—political, cultural, economic. We lead in an era of instant communications and impossible expectations. And it’s harder for women leaders. Social science has demonstrated convincingly that women are more likely to be criticized when leading boldly, that we are judged more harshly for the inevitable wrong call, and more.

It is harder for women leaders to get it right. And yet … we have to.   

Colleges and universities today are at the center of challenging, sometimes painful issues.

For example, campus debates about freedom of speech and expression roil the country, and many argue—and I cannot disagree—that we are not always getting it right.

And yet … we have to.

Higher education, however challenged, has never been more important.

It is the key to American competitiveness and indivisible from our innovation edge.

If higher education is not the place that separates fact from fiction, to whom do we entrust that task?

If we are not the tireless advocates for the American dream, for opportunity through education, who champions that cause?

If we are not the engines of economic and societal progress through research, who will power our future?   

Sian, thank you for the toolkit on how to get it right.

Now, more than ever, the world needs women leaders.

We need Barnard graduates from every discipline leading in Congress, on Wall Street and in our public schools.

We need Barnard’s Mellon Mays Scholars leading in academia, in the National Institutes of Health and in the National Science Foundation.

And we need Barnard actors, authors, dancers, musicians, filmmakers—makers of all kinds—leading movements to represent the fullness of the human experience, including women’s experience, across all cultures.

Sian, the leadership you model will inspire the next generation of leaders: courageous, principled, and prepared to perform, even—especially—when it’s hard.

Welcome to our strong sisterhood.

We are here to support you, to partner with you, and to help you get it right. And we know we can count on you to do the same for us.

Thank you.