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Felicity Barringer Taubman ’68: Exploring the Complexities of World Affairs

The heart of my experience was a rigorous education and the knowledge that there were no limits on what I could question or what I could learn.

Exploring the Complexities of World Affairs

For not quite three decades, Shipley alumna Felicity Barringer Taubman ’68 has served as a correspondent for The New York Times. From her start writing for The Bergen Recordand The Washington Post, to her years of writing for The Times about the dying Soviet Union in the Gorbachev-era, and through her current work as a national environmental correspondent, Barringer has concentrated on explicating complex issues. She wants to show the subtleties of world affairs to the general public. Here, Barringer reflects on her experience at Shipley, the evolution of her career, and why she feels it’s important to remain connected to her alma mater.
  • When did you attend Shipley and how did you come to go to school there?

    I entered in the third grade, in the fall of 1958, so I had 10 years of a Shipley education. My two older sisters were there when I arrived.
  • What stands out now as the heart of your Shipley experience?

    The heart of my experience was a rigorous education and the knowledge that there were no limits on what I could question or what I could learn. At the time, I didn’t recognize it, but looking back from this distance I can see how often young women of my generation were not challenged intellectually. We were [at Shipley]. As for what I studied: I avoided science (which I regret now); I liked math and exploring literature was something of a passion with me. It gave me a reason to write, and I loved to write.
  • After graduating from Shipley, you attended Stanford University. What motivated you to attend college in California?

    My older sisters had gone to Ivy League schools. I wanted to do something very different. A family friend had gone to Stanford, as had my “big sister” at Shipley. I visited her in the spring of my junior year. As I flew over hills east of San Francisco Bay, I looked down on the grass below. Its keen, damp emerald tones made an indelible impression. This vision of the Bay area grabbed me even before Stanford University made its own claim.
  • For the past several decades, you have been a correspondent for The New York Times. What first inspired you to be a journalist?

    One begins examining career alternatives as an adolescent, and as an adolescent I was impressed with journalism for its aura of rebelliousness. It was a way to take the high and mighty down a peg and (for a cliché) to speak truth to power. That attraction hasn’t lessened, just as the number of pompous, secretive people who abuse power hasn’t lessened. But the best journalism is far more nuanced. It doesn’t just call out abuse, idiocy, and hypocrisy. Like good literature, it also examines the complexity of human motivation in good times and bad. Now I love it for that, too.
  • Did your education at Shipley inspire or influence your pursuit of a career in journalism?

    Shipley taught me how to establish facts, verify them and use them in my analysis of situations, and it taught me not to be shy about asking questions. That was enough.
  • How did you come to work for The New York Times and what led to your post as a correspondent in Moscow in 1986? Can you describe the experience of living and working in Gorbachev-era Russia?

    While my love of the profession began while working on, and editing, The Stanford Daily, my first professional journalism jobs were at The Bergen Record and at The Washington Post. The 1970s were a very heady time to be at The Post. In the early 1980s, I had our two sons while working there. In 1984, my husband was in the running for a foreign assignment; when he got the job as the next New York Times correspondent in Moscow, it made sense for me to leave The Post and go to Russia. But I bitterly resented the insistence of the top editor at The New York Times that he had to approve where I could work if we went there. The flip side of that was his willingness to let me write for The Times as a part-time stringer. In 1986, I got a press credential and covered the historic developments of the Gorbachev era for The Times. It was a very exciting assignment. I learned serviceable Russian, interviewed Jews refused exit visas and major Soviet dissidents who were emerging from years in prison or exile. Among them was Andrei Sakharov. I wrote about an imprisoned woman poet who, while in jail, carved her new verse on a bar of soap – all she had to write on – and memorized it before washing it away. I wrote about an old Russian princess emerging from years of anonymity, and about the widow of an early communist executed by Stalin. And I had a front-row seat on the explosion at Chernobyl, the greatest civilian nuclear catastrophe before Fukushima. It threw radioactive poison over hundreds of square miles and forced a mass evacuation, overwhelming a government desperate to show that nothing could overwhelm it. In sum, in our time there we got a chance to witness and write about the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. My work there paved the way for full-time employment at The Times.
  • You also served as a U.N. bureau chief. How did that opportunity arise and what were the highlights of that position?

    I was the United Nations bureau chief for The Times for a riveting nine months in 2003, starting the job as the Iraq war was just a few weeks away. I covered the efforts of some nations, like Chile and Mexico, to thwart our government’s desire to present an illusion of broad worldwide support for the campaign, and got to cover hardball politics in an environment of silks, fine food and red carpets.
  • You’ve covered hugely important news throughout the course of your career—from the Chernobyl disaster and social policy in Washington D.C. to climate change debate in California. What do you see as your most significant piece(s) of journalism?

    That’s like asking “Which child is your favorite?” I am proudest of work that forces people to question their preconceptions. I like making them understand the human nuances of a situation when facts and ideas would otherwise be reduced to simplistic slogans. The New York Times magazine piece I did on the five-year anniversary of Chernobyl is a source of pride, as is a series of pieces I did for The Post in 1981, a multi-part series of articles on a Washington lawyer named Tamara Wall, who was sent to Siberia from Germany before World War II as part of an odd historic corner of the Holocaust. Those I turned into a book, Flight From Sorrow, which was published in 1984 just before my younger son was born.
  • What led to your 2003 move to cover national environmental news? Have you always been interested in environmental science?

    Covering environmental issues has forced me to regret my lackadaisical attitude toward science when I was at Shipley. I began covering environmental issues at the end of 2003, when we moved to Washington because my husband had just been made The Times bureau chief. Things in the environmental world were crucially important as the threat of climate change was widely recognized, and doing many stories—about logging, about endangered species, about energy and power plants—has made me realize how profoundly most things are related to the increasing vagaries of the Earth’s climate.
  • Your archive of Times work holds more than 2,000 articles. Can you share any momentous stories from the field?

    There are too many to isolate one or two. Various encounters have reminded me of people’s need or desire to hide facts—or hide from them. I know too well people’s desire to see opponents not just as adversaries, but as feckless incompetents or inhuman villains. Things are usually more complicated. And I am constantly astounded by so many people’s core humanity, like the people who give out-of-town reporters covering Hurricane Katrina a place to sleep.
  • Last year, you were in a terrible bike accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Thankfully, you are in recovery, but how has that recovery process impacted your work and beyond?

    Most things I can say sound cribbed from an inspirational book about illness. The basics for me were the importance of great medicine, a great family, and great friends. When you come close to losing your life or your cognitive self, you can’t help but look at work differently. Setting priorities —a job neurologists say is part of “executive brain function,” which is centered in the area where my injury occurred—became more crucial. I want to work on the most important things, not just the most accessible ones. Once, my energy and stamina were a source of pride; now I have much less of both. I must use them wisely to do the most important tasks the best way I can.
  • You recently spearheaded an effort to establish a scholarship for two girls attending Shipley. What motivated you to give back in this way and why do you feel it’s important to continue an alumni relationship with Shipley?

    All along—from my birth to parents with great values, to my marriage to a wonderful man and the gift of two great boys, to my chance to do good journalism for great newspapers—have had many blessings. Properly embracing what’s been given to me, I believe, means offering someone else a chance to embrace their own opportunities. One of the greatest gifts to come my way was my Shipley education. A couple of years back I had the idea of encouraging classmates in the Class of 1968 to make a new version of our education possible for young women. 

    As we set about fundraising, we found our lives were a wonderful microcosm of the shifting cultural currents we lived though. Sadly, I just learned that we recently lost a classmate whose days were spent passing on the magic that life had given her. The life of Grace Larson is the best possible explanation of what prompts our scholarships. Shipley gave us Grace. All her life, Grace, as a teacher and as a friend, gave herself to others. Shipley was the original base of our community. Now we are making a contribution to the communities being built there now. Before her death, Grace joined 30 or more of us in this endeavor. What’s important about continuing a relationship with The Shipley School? That’s how to stay in touch with the new worlds emerging there. Like other institutions, Shipley is not perfect, but it is always a wellspring of community, of learning how to think, and of absorbing lasting values. Besides, we can get to know these girls a little. There is so much they can teach us.
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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.