In 1981, Wall Street lawyer Ellen Futter took a leave from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy where she practiced corporate law, to become the acting president of Barnard College for a year, after which she was appointed to the role on a permanent basis where she served for 13 years (until 1993). At the time of her appointment, she was the youngest appointee to a campus presidency of any major American college…actually two months shy of her 30th birthday.
President Futter got a glimpse of college governance in 1971 as served as the student representative to the Barnard Board of Trustees. In 1972 she was elected to full membership as an alumna on the Board to complete the term of the Hon. Arthur Goldberg, former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and she was re-elected in 1975.
Her appointment was met with surprise, not only because the faculty learned about it from the New York Times, but also because the four previous presidents of Barnard had been academics with extensive higher education administrative and/or teaching experience, neither of which Futter possessed. As was explained, the Trustees needed someone they could rely on quickly at the time as the faculty had been split over the firing of President Mattfeld and the Board lacked confidence in senior faculty members at the time. As discussed in May it Please the Campus: Lawyers Leading Higher Education, there is a growing number of members of campus boards of trustees who are being appointed as college and university presidents (most often of the campus there are serving as a board member) precisely because of both the detailed knowledge they possess about the business and operations of the campus, and because they are known to the board and therefore there is a level of confidence and trust not easily given to an outsider during the search process.
During Futter’s tenure, she worked with then Columbia University President Michael Sovern (one of her former law professors), who was also a lawyer, on the issue of co-education, and as a result, Columbia agreed to admit women in 1983 and they created the Columbia-Barnard Consortium enabling, among other things, Barnard athletes to compete in the NCAA Division I and the Ivy League, and Barnard to preserve its independence. It was in fact this idea of a merger between the two schools that derailed President Mattfeld’s tenure.
According to the Barnard College Leadership webpage, among her other accomplishments, “She launched a major fundraising campaign, accepted the recommendation of a faculty committee on a maternity- and parental-leave policy in 1985, and in a most daring decision, embarked on the construction of a new dormitory — Centennial Hall at its opening in 1988, renamed Sulzberger Hall in 1991 — for which Barnard did not yet have the funds. Among her accomplishments was the launch of a sweeping curricular review that led to the creation of the First-Year Seminar Program and greater attention to quantitative reasoning. She was a provocateur for change, advancing the institution while staying true to its history and its mission.”
President Futter resigned to become president of the American Museum of Natural History, a position she held for 30 years until 2022.
Ellen Futter is a graduate of Columbia Law School.