In many ways, Karen Bacon is the ultimate “Stern girl.”
On her first night at Yeshiva University’s college for women, she met a guy from the men’s school uptown, and married him right after graduation. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology — defending her dissertation just before giving birth to their first child — and to do two years of post-graduate work in the then-new field of electron microscopy.
That was all four decades ago for Bacon, who was named dean of her alma mater 27 years ago. This year, as Stern celebrates its 50th anniversary, Bacon reflects on just how much things have changed for students since her undergrad days.
Stylishly and professionally attired in a suit with a modestly cut skirt, Bacon sits with a visitor at a small conference table in her simple office at Stern’s main building in Murray Hill.
In her student days in the early ’60s, Stern “was very small, and we had meager facilities in the sciences,” she says. “We had curfews, and students were watched like hawks. There was an enormous sense of paternalism.”
In that era, few Stern students planned to go on to graduate school or a career. Today, Bacon says, it’s the unusual Stern grad who doesn’t — 80 percent of Stern’s 250 graduates each year go on for advanced study, many in the sciences. She also sees growing interest in political careers, so she allocated funding for summer fellowships in the field this past year.
Empowering observant Jewish women to reach their full potential, in both secular and Jewish skills, is at the top of her agenda. “I’m investing in this because I think it’s important,” she says.
A handful of Stern grads continue in the school’s own post-graduate Talmud study program, which requires two years of full-time study and pays a stipend, much as a kollel program does for male Torah scholars.
“The Orthodox community revolves around studying primary texts” like the Torah and Talmud, says Bacon. “Everything was tertiary texts when I was a student. You can’t be creative that way. Women have made their mark in medicine and law. But this was still men’s domain.
“When women can speak about real content, making reference to sources, they can speak with greater authority and really be partners in the Jewish community,” she says.
In her student days, most Stern girls, as they were known — and, to the chagrin of current students, sometimes still are — majored in education.
“It was a narrow program, which had Jewish studies, science and education and not too much in other areas. Now I feel comfortable boasting of strengths in the art, English, psychology, and history departments along with the sciences,” she says.
Heading her alma mater was never what Bacon thought she’d end up doing.
After a stint at the University of Indiana, Bacon taught biology at YU’s men’s college. Within two years, and with no administrative experience, she was asked to become Stern’s dean.
In the beginning, “I sat here wondering what a dean does. I made a few phone calls and no one seemed to have any advice. I spent two weeks just reading. Then the registrar said there were courses with no faculty to teach them. I said ‘Who handles that?’ and she said ‘You!’ Then I realized there was a job to do,” says Bacon with a laugh, “and I haven’t been able to read since.”
Stern has long been considered the stepchild to Yeshiva University’s male undergraduate school and rabbinical seminary, both on the Washington Heights campus — long referred to as the “main” campus.
But Bacon wants to change that, though she has found that flying under the radar of university politics has its benefits.
“It has allowed us to grow and develop without anyone second-guessing us,” she says. Yet it “is detrimental when there are large pockets of people who have never heard of us.”
That’s beginning to change, she says. Today “Stern is given a lot more credit and prominence at YU than it used to. The recent change in leadership has made a difference because President [Richard] Joel is very interested in the women’s college,” says Bacon. “His concern is equally distributed among men and women.”
Last year, Joel honored Bacon with the first Presidential Medallion. And she was selected to offer the keynote speech at Yeshiva University’s annual dinner last December. Previous keynoters had been Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki.
“I didn’t receive these honors by chance,” says Bacon. “President Joel was making a statement about the centrality of Stern College and of women to YU’s future.”
And she welcomes it. “At this point we could benefit from more visibility. We have what to talk about and what to show,” she says, with evident pride.
As the 30th anniversary of being dean approaches, does she think about retiring? “Every now and then I talk to my husband about what’s next,” says the mother of three and grandmother of 11. “But that’s where the conversation ends. We’re having too much fun at the moment.” n
An exhibition of photographs and artifacts highlighting Stern College’s history will be on display at the Yeshiva University Museum,15 W. 16th St., in the Center for Jewish History, from Oct. 22-Jan. 9. An opening night gala on Oct. 21 will honor philanthropist E. Billi Ivry and Dean Karen Bacon.