Barnard College Finds Its Woman of the Hour: Wall Street Lawyer Ellen Futter, 30

At age 30, with not a day of academic administrative experience behind her, Ellen V. Futter is an unlikely choice to be a college president. Nevertheless, the energetic corporate lawyer this month begins her first semester as acting president of New York’s Barnard College, the youngest in the school’s 91-year history.

Because of her youth and inexperience, Futter has generated some grousing among the 221-member faculty at Barnard, which has an enrollment of 2,400 women. A 1971 graduate of Barnard, the sister institution of all-male Columbia College, Futter was active in student affairs but sat out the student uprising there during the late 1960s. She did serve as a student representative on the board of trustees during her undergraduate days and has been a trustee since her first year at Columbia Law School. “What counts is not that I’m 30,” she argues. “It’s the vitality and enthusiasm I expect to bring to this job that will make the difference.”

Futter further defends her appointment on the grounds that during six years with the distinguished Wall Street law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, she has developed analytical and negotiating skills that should prove helpful in her new position. Most important, she notes: “Being a young professional woman, I represent much of what Barnard is all about.”

Futter assumes her post at a crucial time in Barnard’s history. She is succeeding Jacquelyn A. Mattfeld, 54, who resigned last June—one year before her five-year contract expired. A committee is being formed to find a permanent replacement, but Futter is not officially in the running. She insists instead that she will return to Milbank, Tweed at the end of her one-year leave of absence.

One reason for Mattfeld’s premature departure was the tense affiliation in recent years between Barnard and Columbia. (The schools, though sharing a campus, each have their own faculty, trustees and administration.) Mattfeld was an outspoken opponent of attempts by Columbia to absorb Barnard. Futter backs that stand and says, “I’m committed to Barnard being an independent institution.” Futter’s counterpart and potential adversary at Columbia is its new president, Michael I. Sovern, 48, dean of Columbia Law School when Futter was a student there. Sovern calls Futter’s appointment “inspired,” while she diplomatically looks forward to “a very cordial and productive relationship.”

Futter’s involvement with Barnard and Columbia predates her appointment and even her enrollment there. Her father, attorney Victor Futter, is Columbia ’39 and a former president of the alumni association. Futter’s husband, John A. Shutkin, 31, was a classmate of hers at Columbia Law. The couple live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and spend weekends playing tennis or walking the beaches on Long Island, where Futter grew up with an older brother, now a lawyer, and a younger sister, a grad student at Columbia. Their mother is a junior high school librarian.

Futter and her husband have no children. “We haven’t gotten around to it yet,” explains Futter, “but we will.” If they have a daughter, Futter will definitely encourage her to go to Barnard. What about a son? “It is not conceivable to me at this moment that Barnard would ever admit men.” But she adds, “One of the things you learn as a lawyer is never to say never.”

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