Upside (?) of university restructuring in the face of financial crisis

In the face of fiscal crisis, Women’s Studies Programs are at significant risk.  To name just two, Women’s Studies at Guelph University is no more, and the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada is on the chopping block.  San Francisco State University took this challenge head on with their Women’s History Month Public Lecture Series, “Reading, wRioting, and Reclaiming: Feminism(s) Empowerment and the Crisis in Public Education.” The flier for this series says

California’s current fiscal crisis challenges the state’s promise to provide access to higher education to its citizens, to offer liberal arts as well as a professional and vocational curriculum, and to encourage its graduates to pursue lives of civic and social responsibility. Emerging from the activism of the 60s, feminist scholarship(s), women and gender studies curriculum have been integral to this vision, challenging and transforming the curriculum, breaking new intellectual ground, and opening doors and minds.

In times of budgetary stress it is common for institutions of higher learning to face backward and focus on ‘core areas of strength.’ Since Women’s Studies, and feminist work in general, are relatively new to the academy and tend to serve groups of students, faculty and the lay public, who are marginalized within the academy, these disciplines frequently suffer.  It is easy to overlook their value. Dr. Ibram Rogers blogs that

Disciplines like women’s studies, queer studies, African-American studies, Latino studies, Native American studies, foreign languages and Asian studies should not and can not be funded, underfunded and eliminated based on the fiscal atmosphere of the times.  But they will continue to be as long as they are segregated on the margins of the academy; as long as academics perceive them to be and relegate them as appetizers and desserts instead of main and vital dishes of everyday healthy student consumption.

While I do not want to trivialize the pain of university restructuring in the face of sharply declining revenues, it is important to note that it is at least possible for some of this wholesale restructuring to have some positive effects.   While administrators continually develop ‘visioning’ and ‘long term plans’, it is rare for the faculty to really participate in these efforts.  Further these efforts are rarely radical.  Now, many universities are forced to consider radical change.  Radical change could be an opportunity for redressing historical inequities that have become calcified in our institutional structures.   Radical change could address the fact that white men make up the majority of the professoriate, but not the general population.  Radical change could involve developing areas of faculty strength and programming that brings the demographics of our faculty more in line with the demographics of our states.  Radical change could involve developing research foci and curricular initiatives that are more in line with the needs of a diverse tax payer base.

In comparison to the magnitude of university budgets, these programs are relatively inexpensive.  The difference in cost between hiring a feminist scholar and, say, a physicist or an engineer is immense.  We are cheap. Even so, it may seem like a luxury to think about the long term value of diversity, some of which does not immediately impact the financial bottom line of the institution.  But, rather than only looking back at, and supporting, ‘core areas of strength’, we also need to look ahead to ensure that we are meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse society.  There is an opportunity here for many of us to ask our leaders to face forward.

5 thoughts on “Upside (?) of university restructuring in the face of financial crisis

  1. The emphasis on the almighty dollar (or pound or whatever) is also at work here – women’s studies scholars and researchers do not bring huge grants to prop up sagging university budgets. And Uni’s do love those big grants – they control the money and the institution retains a very large percentage of any research funds for itself as “overhead”. The bigger the grant you can bring with you, or prove that you will acquire, the more they want you. Women’s Studies is not alone – anthropology, English lit, history, even philosophy(!), etc, all are looked down on and kicked to the curb compared to whatever fields are currently bringing in the research bucks.

  2. j – absolutely right, I fear. Which leads to the worry about how to implement alpha’s excellent ideas.

    I do remember some time ago some of the well known and decorated (e.g., chaired profs) got together, held meetings, let their opinions be known AND, I suspect, lobbied powerful board of regents members, the press, etc. They had quite an impact, though not all were fat cat scientists.

  3. j, you are right, we don’t tend to bring in the grant dollars and at my institution the university takes 47% right off the top for indirect costs.

    But, the budgets are more complicated than that.
    1) Start up packages for scientists range from $200,000 to $700,000 here in the US. It takes a long time, even for a successful grant writer, to make up that difference, and if the person leaves the institution before tenure, much of that money is lost.
    2) Our salaries are much lower.
    3) The overhead required for our work is minimal.
    4) At many US schools, even the public ones, the proportion of the budget that comes from tuition is increasing rapidly (which is a fact that I deplore). While it is common for a scientist to teach one or two classes a year, I teach 5 or 6. I pay for myself just because of the 100’s of students I teach.

    But, most importantly, there is intrinsic value in the research and education that we do. I know that there is often a distressing mismatch between press releases and practice. But, I think we have a duty to prepare students for life in a diverse world, and I bet that there isn’t a school in the US that doesn’t have something saying so in their mission statement.

    I admit that many of our best efforts to say so make little or no dent in practice, but I think we should keep talking and lobbying anyway.

  4. When my university underwent budget cuts, they decided to save money by combining the Women’s Center with the Office of GLBT Life. It was such an elegant example of blurring the concerns of two minorities together, justified by some kind of gender/sexuality misconception on the part of the administration (I assume it went like this: “gay men are like women, right?”), so that the result was further marginalizing the disempowered groups by sticking them together in one under-budgeted office. It was terrible and I was very angry, but I also have to appreciate the irony. (Lumping people together based on disempowerment, resulting in MORE disempowerment for both groups? Movie plots aren’t this ironic.)

  5. Good News Update: The Women’s Studies Program at UNLV has apparently survived this round of cuts, unlike 7 other programs.

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