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5 Questions for...Judith Shapiro, President, Teagle Foundation

April 24, 2015

Judith Shapiro has spent decades in and around higher education in the United States. The first female professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago, where she taught from 1970 to 1975, Shapiro joined the faculty at Bryn Mawr College in 1975 as a member of the department of anthropology and later served as acting dean (1985-86) and provost (1986-94) of the college. She went on to serve as president of Barnard College — the first person to come through the New York City school system to do so — from 1994 to 2008 and was named president of the New York City-based Teagle Foundation in 2013. Shapiro has researched and written widely about gender differences, social organization, cultural theory, and missionization, and throughout her career has spoken out on a broad range of topics.

Headshot_judith_shapiroPhilanthropy News Digest: You spent most of your career in academia, including fourteen years as president of Barnard College. Is being a foundation president a lot different than being a college president?

Judith Shapiro: I loved being president of Barnard. But the job was unremitting, whereas my job here doesn't feel as if it consumes my entire life. Being a college president is really strenuous, but having that in my background is espec­ially useful to this particular foundation. One interesting difference in my situation is that, for the most part, I spent my academic career in elite institutions: Brandeis, Columbia, University of Chicago, Bryn Mawr, Barnard. But since coming to Teagle, I've been exposed to a much wider variety of institutions and learned that there are truly interesting things going on in all kinds of institutions.

It's good that there's diversity in our educational sector, not only among institutions of higher education, but also among foundations, and among foundations that are involved in higher education. Lumina, for example, can focus on policy-related issues in higher education, Mellon can dig into the arts and digital humanities, and Sloan has a nice focus on undergraduate STEM, whereas Teagle doesn't specialize in any of those areas. So there's a nice division of labor among foundations, but also opportunities for them to coordinate and cooperate. You know that foundations often like their grantees to collaborate, and it's a good thing for foundations to work with each other as well.

PND: That type of collaboration often comes with challenges. As an anthropologist, how would you recommend that some of the cultural challenges be addressed?

JS: Some of the challenges are very real. The Center for Effective Philanthropy examined how foundations can and do work together and found that, in some cases, the cost of the collaboration in terms of coordinating activities was so great that the foundations collaborating really had to step back and decide whether the partnership made sense. In general, I think the pooling of funding is a good idea, but you have to find a way to combine the distinctive focus and identity of the various partners and avoid getting carried away by the kind of institutional narcissism that results in organizations competing with or not paying attention to each other.

PND: You're known as someone who is willing to comment on a broad range of issues — not exactly a trait one associates with foundation presidents. Do you think foundation presidents should speak out more frequently on important national issues?

JS: They certainly should speak out on issues that are relevant to the mission of their foundation. During my years as a college president, I felt that the role of communicator-in-chief was a particularly important part of my job description. The bully pulpit is a tool that can and should be used to advance the work of a foundation. Both of my predecessors here at Teagle, Bob Connor and Rich Morrill, did that to wonderful effect. So, if an issue is important to the mission, yes, I think it's a good thing for a foundation president to speak out, even a responsibility.

On issues that are not directly relevant to the foundation's mission, on the other hand, I would say, "First, do no harm." I remember Larry Summers, when he was president of Harvard, speaking at a conference dedicated to women in science and suggesting that the shortage of women in certain disciplines was in part due to gender differences in mathematical ability. Well, we all know what happened next. He later said he was not speaking as president of Harvard. But when you're the president of Harvard, it's very hard not to speak as the president of Harvard.

In my case, I have written on issues related to my area of social science expertise, to my teaching experience, and to my experiences as a college president — issues that are not necessarily relevant to the work we do here at Teagle. And in those cases, I do not identify myself as the president of the Teagle Foundation, but rather as someone affiliated with Bryn Mawr or Barnard.

In terms of issues that do not fall into my area of expertise but which are of concern to me as a citizen of the United States — I may have strong opinions about how to address climate change, for example — I tend not to speak out publicly. So I support the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, but I don't see the point of speaking out on their issues in my role as a foundation president.

PND: Teagle has supported a number of blended learning initiatives and projects in which at least part of a formal education program is delivered electronically. How are digital technologies and the shift to a digital economy changing the way students are approaching higher education?

JS: We're trying to help faculty at our partner institutions incorporate online resources into classes so that class time is used in a more interactive, productive way.

I'm also on the board of the University of the People, which is entirely virtual — even the administra­tion is virtual. Its goal is to reach populations — both abroad and in the U.S. — which otherwise wouldn't have access to higher education. Not surprisingly, a lot of those programs tend to have a strong career focus.

Ethnographically speaking — again as an anthropologist — we need to better understand how students are operating in these new worlds of digitally delivered information and learning. That doesn't mean we have to go native completely; students can benefit from more traditional habits and ways of learning. And just as there was a slow food movement that emerged in response to fast food, we may see the emergence of a slow teaching or learning movement that is dedicated to helping young people focus on one thing in a way that enables them to learn it more thoroughly and comprehensively.

PND: You recently traveled to Cuba. How might the U.S.-Cuba reset affect U.S. foundations?

JS: Actually, the trip I took was organized by the Bryn Mawr Alumni Association; I spent nineteen years at the college as a faculty member and as provost. The trip was scheduled months ahead of time and it was a total and utter coincidence that it took place in the wake of the major changes announced by the Obama administration. Clearly, it turned out to be very, very exciting. When we got to Havana, we ran into Senator [Pat] Leahy (D-VT) in the hotel, which had both the American and Cuban flags flying out front.

As for foundations and the new spirit of détente, it's hard to say what will happen or what they should do. Teagle is a small foundation, and we have not worked internationally. If you're David and not Goliath, you've got to be very careful about where you aim. Our approach is to be a good partner to our grantees. We don't assume we have all the answers, and what we do grows out of the interactions we have with the organizations we support.

But, certainly, larger foundations with more resources may start thinking about establishing connections with civil society groups in Cuba, and I hope they do. The needs in the country are enormous, and the prospect of U.S. foundations beginning to allocate some of their resources to address those needs is a wonderful thing to contemplate. I think any help will be gratefully welcomed by the Cuban people. And I hope that kind of spirit prevails as foundations here look to deepen their engagement with Cuba and the Cuban people.

Matt Sinclair

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