The best-attended baby shower at Barnard last fall was thrown by students who gave teddy bears and a Tiffany diaper pin to a bundle named Annie Shutkin. Her 32-year-old mother is Ellen Futter, Barnard president. She is not only the youngest head of a major college in the United States, but also the new campus role model for her perplexed 18-year-olds.
"I have students come in every day who say, 'How do I be a lawyer, get married, have a baby and live happily ever after?' " she says. "When I graduated from Barnard, the spirit was 'Go on to graduate school' and the question was not: 'What are the implications for my life?' Now they're very relieved, I think, to see somebody, as you put it, doing it all. There's hope."
Futter was in Washington last week to raise money and minds for Barnard, the 93-year-old institution that needs a good deal of both. In January, after more than a decade of merger talk with Columbia University, Barnard announced it would remain a women's college--holding out, like Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke and most others, in its conference of rigorous and elite "Seven Sisters" schools. But Columbia, Barnard's all-male sibling across the street on New York's Upper West Side, will begin admitting women by 1983. Many on campus wonder whether Barnard will survive.
Certainly, the school--alma mater for author Erica Jong, astronomer Henrietta Swope, dancer Twyla Tharp, comedian Joan Rivers, poet Ntozake Shange and the late anthropologist Margaret Mead--must now explain why an all-women's college is desirable in 1982. Futter, a former corporate lawyer who is described by New York contemporaries as exceptionally bright, energetic but still unscarred by the inevitable administrative wars, is doing plenty of talking. She has hired Hill & Knowlton, the public relations firms, to help promote Barnard. And she has made herself available to the press, well-armed with facts, figures and the optimism of a whiz kid.
"Many of the institutions that are coed today really began as men's institutions," she says. "They're only learning that maybe there are some things to do that are specially oriented to women, rather than just grafting women onto the old formula for men." Women's colleges, she says, provide "an ambiance, an environment. The editor of the paper is a woman. The president of the student government is a woman. But I don't think it's bad to have men on the campus or in the class. On the contrary, it's wonderful. And we do it."
Futter has a no-nonsense look about her, although she is friendly and pleasant. She would be more enjoyable on the other side of a dinner table than a college merger talk. She is sensibly dressed in a rust-colored skirt and tweedy blazer. She is a serious person; a moment of silliness would be rare. People who meet her say afterward they were "impressed."
She spends more than an hour talking on a couch at the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton, carefully explaining her responsibility as role model. "I don't know that I feel that I am," she says, "but I think I know I've become one. I try to say to the students, 'I think you should shoot for it, but you should know it will take an awful lot of support.' The other thing I've tried to say is that it isn't right for everybody. I think it would be a great sadness if women's liberation meant that very talented women felt like failures because they couldn't juggle four balls at one time."
Futter, who grew up in Port Washington on Long Island, graduated magna cum laude from Barnard in 1971. She was a transfer student from the University of Wisconsin. "I wasn't there for Columbia's big doings in '68," she says. "When I arrived, it was really rather quiet. An institution on the mend, I think." She met her husband, John Shutkin, while at Columbia Law School, and married him in 1974. She was a lawyer at the New York firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy and a longtime member of Barnard's board of trustees before becoming acting president in 1980. In November 1981, after an extensive search and a year of saying, at least publicly, that she wasn't interested in the job, Futter was inaugurated as president.
"What happened?" she says. "I found that I was having a ball."
Now she is careful to be humble about how she manages to "do it all," well aware there are students like Barnard Bulletin editor Mary Witherell who say: "She's proof positive that you can make it."
"For one thing," says Futter, "I'm still learning how to do it. I've only had a baby for less than six months. Secondly, I've got all the factors in my favor. It would be very sad if my example were held up to women as 'Look, she does it, you can do it, too.' It's not that simple. I live across the street from my job. I have full-time help. I have a terrifically supportive husband. As president, I can control my calendar. I have the economic wherewithal to help myself out to do other things. I don't have to always get the best bargain on the dress or whatever it is. I go in, I see it, I get it. You have to have that combination of things, I think, to make it easy. Or easier . . . but the pressure in terms of thinking about how to make it all work is still a woman's question. I think that tells us what plateau we're at."
Right now she thinks the most important education issue is lack of money. "I think it's about 'Whither goes the American dream?' " she says. "The campus, in recent months, has gotten much more interested in outside events in terms of the proposed Reagan budget cuts. What kind of a society are we going to be?" Education, she says, is "a fundamental resource."
She is blase' about being the youngest major college president in America ("I get overwhelmed by things, as does everybody, but I don't think I get overwhelmed because I'm 32"), but admits there's stress. "You don't get enough sleep," she says. "You carry a certain level of guilt that you're not spending the right time, ever, on the right thing. And . . . I feel the lack of what I would call 'dream time.' "
Her advice to her students on how to do it? "The answer is, there's no formula. Each person has to kind of feel their own way. That's not a thoroughly satisfying answer. I wish I had a better one."