Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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The joy and the frustration’

In 1992, on the eve of beginning her tenure as NU’s vice president for student affairs, Peggy Barr arrived in Evanston after driving 12 hours a day from Texas.

She arrived before her furniture, so she spent the night at the Omni Orrington Hotel. But just before she fell asleep, the Barr era officially began.

“At 9 o’clock at night I got a phone call about an emergency on campus,” she says. “And I thought, ‘I don’t even know where the campus is, and I have an emergency to deal with.’ And it hasn’t stopped since then.”

Since then Barr — who will retire in June after 38 years as a student affairs administrator — has been charged with balancing the interests of students and administrators, two strong-willed constituencies that often have little direct contact. Heavily involved in many areas of student life, Barr is the most visible face in an administration many students perceive as distant and unfeeling.

And when a quarter of the clientele graduates each June, Barr’s accomplishments will fade over time in students’ collective memory — if students ever knew which accomplishments were hers in the first place. But her controversial decisions and anti-alcohol stance remain fresh in their minds.

Higher Ground

Barr’s tenure has been marked by significant expansion and improvement of the student affairs division, to the point that administrators call it among the best in the country.

“She brought the entire student affairs division to a new level of professionalism, and it is one of the more highly regarded divisions among the major private institutions,” says William Banis, Barr’s interim successor. “She’s been absolutely instrumental in upgrading student services. Just to spend a few months in her shadow is a very humbling thought.”

Before coming to NU, Barr was vice chancellor at Texas Christian University for seven years. She also worked at Northern Illinois University as vice president for student affairs and as an associate dean at the University of Texas at Austin.

When Barr arrived at NU, students were assigned to a dining hall and had a choice of two entrees. Counseling and Psychological Services was much smaller, and its director worked only part-time. There was no Higher Grounds, Cone Zone or Tech Express.

Then there were the washers and dryers in residence halls, which were notorious for burning clothes.

“When we changed the washer and dryer contract, you would have thought we gave people a million dollars,” Barr says. “And it was just a real simple thing to do. It’s sensible to me that students shouldn’t have their clothes burn up.”

Barr, who turns 60 in June, toured the residence halls early in her tenure. She wasn’t pleased with what she saw — and secured $21 million for renovations.

“A lot of those things are not things that the average student would see, but they would know if they were missing,” Barr says. “Like tuck-pointing — the caulk between the bricks. When that goes, the wind whistles into your room, and that’s not comfortable.”

At the McManus Living-Learning Center alone, NU spent $750,000 on tuck-pointing. Renovations have also been made to Bobb and Elder halls, and dining facilities have been renovated at Allison Hall, Sargent Hall and Willard Residential College. Barr also says she takes particular pleasure in the removal — to be completed this summer — of “the dreaded bikini desks.”

In short, much of the pre-Barr era of NU is unknown to today’s student body.

“This generation of students has no sense that it used to be different,” Barr says. “And that’s part of both the joy and the frustration of working with a student body.

“An extraordinary number of things have happened — and I’m not the only reason why they happened. Times were right and people were ready.”

In early years, Barr focused on students’ living and dining facilities.

“Food and shelter are pretty basic kinds of things for students,” she says. “If you don’t take care of those basic needs, it doesn’t matter how good a counseling service you have or how caring the administration is if you can’t see it in your daily life as a student.”

‘The times that try your soul’

But even when students see improvements in their daily lives, they often don’t associate them with Barr. Among students she hasn’t worked with, opinions of Barr are often unfavorable.

Adam Humann began working with Barr last year as Associated Student Government vice president for student services. He says students often take out their frustrations on Barr.

“Dr. Barr is involved in all the good, and she’s involved in all the bad,” says Humann, now ASG president. “She’s made herself the lightning rod for criticism for students on issues like tailgates — she’s kind of been the lighting rod for all the criticism for the administration.”

Barr says the criticism comes with the territory.

“The problem for most students is that most administrators seem far away to them,” she says. “Unless you have a cause or a reason to, there’s very little interaction between the average student and the average administrator. So there’s just a sense of distance.”

And, Barr says, with distance comes a distorted perception of administrators.

“There are assumptions that are made of evil intent,” she says. “Most of us don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Okay, how many students are we going to make life miserable for today?'”

Of all her decisions, the issue that brought her the most heat from students was the elimination of alcohol from tailgates one year ago today. The decision wasn’t Barr’s — fraternity presidents voted on it.

But administrators had ordered fraternities to overhaul tailgates after a Fall Quarter in which students threw food, yelled obscenities at older women and vomited in the parking lot.

A year later, then-Interfraternity Council President Taylor Janis says he respects Barr’s decision.

“What was best for the students was not best for the administrators,” says Janis, a Weinberg senior. “I respect that she had to do something that was unpopular with students that was best for the university.”

Barr says she was only making sure Greek houses were covered by their own risk-management policies — which were compromised when alcohol was present at tailgates.

“I don’t want them mortgaging their futures for beer — it’s not worth it,” she says. “So we have encouraged fraternities and sororities to follow their own risk-management policies so that they have insurance coverage.”

But Barr still took the brunt of the criticism — making for a job, she says, that requires a tough skin.

“Probably tougher than I’ve had on some days,” she says. “Those are the times that try your soul. There are people who are annoying you at home or they’re sending you things in the mail — that I have no tolerance for because it casts a pall on your relationships with everybody.”

Al Cubbage, vice president for university relations, says students often don’t see the work Barr does for them.

“In a lot of meetings students hear her saying, ‘No’ and resent her, but the reality is she is always at our meetings saying, ‘This is something we need to do for the students. This is something that’s important to the students,'” he says. “And I’m not sure that students see that side of her because they’re not in that particular meeting.”

But Humann, a Weinberg junior, says working with her dispelled the criticism.

“Going into working with her, I had no idea what to expect,” he says. “(But) I can honestly say that I would not have been as good at my job without Dr. Barr. In losing her, we’re losing one of the best advocates of students that has ever been at NU.”

In other controversies, from Muslim students asking for prayer space to the 1995 hunger strike for an Asian-American studies program, Barr says students’ anger most often stems from the slow change of pace inherent in a large institution.

“Usually it’s a conflict of time frame as opposed to content,” she says. “Students understandably want to have X, Y or Z happen during the time that they’re an und
ergraduate, and that may or may not be possible depending on resources.”

‘A real loss to the university’

And eventually, many student requests are met — Muslim students now have two prayer spaces, and an Asian-American Studies minor should be available by Winter Quarter.

Barr helped acclimate University President Henry Bienen when he arrived at NU in 1995, and he says he found her indispensable.

“She’s just a wonderful person,” he says. “It’s a real loss to the university. She always has student interests in mind, but at the same time she puts those concerns in the context of the university at as a whole.”

Now, though, Barr can leave university interests behind.

“I’m looking forward to it — to doing things at my own pace, on my own time,” she says.

Barr’s plans include consulting, speaking and traveling — she plans to visit New Zealand and Australia.

For a few more weeks, though, Peggy Barr will be in her Rebecca Crown office. And the door will be open, as it usually is.

“Part of my job is always to speak up for students, and also to be honest with students — tell them when I agree with them and when I don’t,” she says. “To do less means that you’re pretty patronizing, and that doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense to me.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
The joy and the frustration’