A Tribute to Barbara Kaplan

Theory and Practice

Portrait of Barabara Kaplan

When a faculty search committee recommended Barbara Kaplan to serve as dean of the College, they wrote, "We see Barbara as diplomatic and tactful as well as strong and principled, with considerable backbone."

An apt description-and fortuitous, too.

Barbara Kaplan had already served Sarah Lawrence for ten years, first as dean of studies (1975-80) and then associate dean (1980-85). As dean of the College, she took on responsibility for the faculty and the curriculum-where she put that diplomacy and backbone to good use.

For more than 30 years, Kaplan has kept the College's curriculum rigorous, timely, and coherent. That's a complex job at an institution that prides itself on having no majors or set coursework, but Kaplan has handled it with aplomb, preserving the College's core identity while smoothing countless details to keep the academic program strong. Under her guidance, the College has expanded the sciences, increased interdisciplinary offerings, and embraced a global perspective in courses throughout the curriculum.

At Sarah Lawrence the relationship among students, teachers, and coursework is the very heart of our identity, so, as dean, Barbara Kaplan has effectively been the keeper of the Sarah Lawrence difference. The College couldn't have asked for a better one.

  Barbara Kaplan speaking at a College gathering We will all miss that laugh, which can be heard on the first floor of Westlands through a closed door all the way up on the second floor. Kaplan, /octoved, 1988

Top: Speaking at a College gathering. Bottom: Kaplan, October, 1988.

A Spirited Vision by Nancy Baker, Philosophy Faculty Member

I first got to know Barbara when she came to Sarah Lawrence as dean of studies. It was my second year and I had just been elected to the Committee on Student Work, where I was about to be introduced to the arcane intricacies of the College's academic policies. I thought I understood pretty well how they worked, but here was a brand-new dean who seemed to have mastered it all. In the committee's never-ending discussions about those policies and their applicability to this or that case, I could see that this was someone with a very sharp mind. In addition to being impressed by Barbara's intelligence, I noticed how she knew we were dealing with persons, not just policies. Always patient, fair, clear, non-reactive, and able to see things from many points of view, she never imposed anything on the committee or on the students appearing before the committee, but led us, through her hard listening and gentle questioning, to look at our own points of view differently. Later, when she was dean of the College, I recognized these same qualities while serving with her on the Advisory Committee.

There was something else that struck me during Barbara's first year at the College-her deep sense of humor. I discovered that I could always feel like a great comedian in the presence of the easiest laugh I've ever known. We will all miss that laugh, which can be heard on the first floor of Westlands through a closed door all the way up on the second floor. And then there were the dogs. As many of us know, Barbara is a great animal lover and has traveled far and wide to see all kinds up close, but the ones she lives with are dogs. Occasionally, her current dog can be seen in Westlands. Many years ago, one night when Oliver Sachs, the neurologist and philosopher, was giving a talk, he wished he had an animal to illustrate some point. True to our interdisciplinary spirit, Barbara promptly went and got Sophie, Alice Ilchman's schnauzer. The evening was intellectually much richer.

When Barbara became dean of the College in 1985, she gave an opening address at our convocation. If you did not hear it then or have not remembered it, it is worth going to the library to read. (Click here to read an excerpt for the address.) It is a strikingly articulate and eloquent statement of our vision of education, or, as she put it, of "our values, our hopes for our students, our view of the world." Barbara's deep understanding of that vision and her commitment to it have informed everything she has done as dean of the College. This has included not only knowing how to introduce prospective students, parents, new faculty, deans and presidents to that vision as a philosophy, but also knowing how the day-to-day functioning of all aspects of the College-not just what happens in the classroom-can be understood as an embodiment of it.

The center of that vision is, of course, the individual. In her address, after mentioning how much the word "individual" has been misused and misunderstood in contemporary culture, Barbara went on to say, "To focus on the individual is to focus on concrete reality. And that sense of concreteness-of the living reality and texture of education-permeates that vision. It leads to a rejection of abstract schemes for education." Those who have worked closely with Barbara know that for her, the College's vision of education has contained and given meaning to all the details she has had to attend to as an administrator. In her work as dean she has done what we value most in the classroom.

We owe Barbara a great deal for her unwavering commitment to that vision. She has supported us as individuals in so many ways. But most important of all, through times of serious financial constraints and other challenges, she has always held firm to the College's ideals, managing to preserve our structure and student-teacher ratio. Her convocation address ended with the following: "In the coming years there will no doubt be changes, and I don't think any of us can predict the exact form of those changes. But the values of the College will not change and its structures will always express those values. We have always had a special courage, an ability to be ourselves even when being ourselves was costly and difficult. And we will continue to be that way." This is what Barbara has been for us and has taught many of us how to be.


Nancy Baker, the Frieda Wildy Riggs co-chair in Religious Studies, has been a member of the philosophy faculty since 1974. She has worked with Barbara Kaplan in various capacities since 1975, and looks forward to continuing the non-working part of their friendship after Barbara's retirement.

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