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.
Philanthropy 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.