Modern Languages Legend

Professor Emerita Barbara Freed invests in the future of CMU's Modern Languages Department

By Amanda S.F. Hartle | April 13, 2021

Professor Emerita Barbara Freed wasn’t looking for a new position when Carnegie Mellon University came calling in 1989 with an opportunity to create and head a new Department of Modern Languages.

But it turned out to be a life-defining proposition she couldn’t refuse.

“It was one of those offers that you never turn down,” says Barbara, who taught in Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences for 22 years. “I took the job and never looked back.”

Decades later, she’s still investing in the future of the department.

As part of her lifetime giving plan, she will immediately make an impact on the department with the Barbara F. Freed Faculty Research Fellowship, which provides seed funding for a faculty member’s research projects in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). For future generations, she will establish the Barbara F. Freed Endowed Chair, which will support a professorship in SLA, with a planned gift in her will.

“I’m giving back literally to an institution that gave me so much,” Barbara says. “I believe in people, and people make institutions. Carnegie Mellon, and the people who make it great, supported me from the day I arrived until the day I left.”

As the founding department head, she, together with colleagues she unfailingly credits, built a program dedicated largely to the contexts and processes of learning languages beyond first ones — rather than a department that focused on the traditional European literary canon and grammar-based instruction.

“At the University of Pennsylvania, where I taught before CMU, I was called ‘that radical young woman’ because I encouraged something different,” says Barbara, who now is Professor Emerita of French Studies and Applied Linguistics and spends much of her time as a director and stage/screen scriptwriter. “I came with huge energy, passion and vision to build a department which would serve as a model for the country.”

Throughout her career, she split her work foci between research in SLA and social art history concentrating on southern France’s 20th-century artists. She credits her chosen path to a year spent living in France with her family.

“I went from a prospective major in anthropology to being a French major. Everything I am today is attributable to studying abroad,” Barbara says. “A major research preoccupation became answering the question, ‘What is it about the language of students who study abroad that is different from those who study at home?’”

During her time at CMU, she tackled that topic in one of her seven authored, edited or translated books in addition to numerous publications. She also wrote, directed and produced an award-winning documentary, where she focused on her art history interests. She received multiple awards and grants for her work and was named an Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Ambassador to the United States.

“The success I’ve had, and the department’s achievements are not mine alone; they belong to everyone who worked hard with me.” Barbara Freed

For 22 years, she was bolstered by her late husband Sheldon Tabb, who encouraged her to take the CMU position, until his passing in 2004. She married Alan Mittelman in 2008, and he suggested her gift design.

“The moment he suggested it, I knew that was it,” Barbara says. “Carnegie Mellon is where my heart is.”

She encourages others to plan for their future legacies by reflecting on their time at CMU — whether it was a few years as a student or a lifelong career.

“Think about anything that meant something to you at Carnegie Mellon: a professor, a course, an opportunity you were given,” Barbara says. “Do as much as you can, as soon as you can.”

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Liz Cooper
Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Associate Dean for Advancement