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Gender Gap

Faculty, Students Claim Hopkins Is Gutting Women's Studies Program

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 3/28/2001

The demise of the once-lauded women's studies program at Johns Hopkins University has prompted student and faculty protests and a nascent campaign to throw a spotlight on what critics call enduring gender-bias problems at the school.

In recent months, Michael Moon, the director of Hopkins' Women, Gender, and Sexuality program (WG&S), stepped down amid what he has called "a pattern of administrative indifference and insult" toward the program and its senior faculty; the program's advisory board of 13 tenured professors resigned their duties en masse, claiming in a letter to administrators that the university "has never taken women's studies seriously" and has failed to afford women the same opportunities as other minorities on staff; and students have circulated an on-campus petition to publicize what they call Hopkins' lack of support for gender studies.

The charges and defections, however, appear to have spurred little administration action. The interdepartmental program has lacked a leader for seven months and support staff for more than two years, and it is housed in a building slated for demolition. Students and faculty contend the program exists in name only, and, after several months of low-key protest, they've begun taking their grievances public. A student group called the Friends of WG&S has scheduled a noon rally at the university's Homewood campus for April 3 and is planning a letter-writing campaign to high school guidance counselors, accusing Hopkins of false advertising for publicizing a virtually nonexistent program.

Gender-bias claims are nothing new at Hopkins; the WG&S program itself was started in response to a 1985 internal university report that described the atmosphere at the school as "at best indifferent and at worst, hostile to the concerns of women." Judy Walkowitz, a respected gender- studies historian at Rutgers University, was lured to run the program, and for several years it thrived, with as many as 1,000 students taking WG&S courses at a time and the program frequently hosting guest speakers and other events. But by the mid-1990s, administrative zeal for it seemed to be waning--departed staffers were not replaced, major courses were handed over to graduate students to teach, and in 1998 the program was moved into the decrepit Owen House, which the university plans to raze. The program's remaining students and faculty say they wonder whether Hopkins is simply trying to starve WG&S to death, raising the old questions about its overall commitment to gender equality.

The university has failed to "redress the gender imbalance on the faculty," says Walkowitz, who remains at Hopkins as a history professor and teaches courses that are cross-listed in the WG&S program. Just 12 percent of the university's tenured professors are women, she notes, a ratio comparable to that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 1999, when that school made national news by admitting to sexist hiring practices. "There seems to be no shame on the part of the faculty or the administration on this point," Walkowitz says.

Hopkins officials defend their hiring practices and deny that they are indifferent to the status and fate of WG&S. "It is not in the interest of this administration not to have a gender-studies program at Johns Hopkins," says Steven David, associate dean of academic affairs. He adds that the School of Arts and Sciences, which includes WG&S, has assembled a new committee to "reformulate" and possibly expand the program by next year.

But if past serves as precedent, the administration's critics say, such promises are merely that. "When we had dared hope for a clear resolution, there has been, instead, stasis," the departed WG&S advisory board declared in its Nov. 6 resignation letter.

The program was created in 1989 with a private grant, and Walkowitz was hired the following year. After she stepped down from the WG&S directorship in 1997, the program was run by a series of co-directors (who shared the job because, unlike Walkowitz, they did not get dispensation from the university to reduce their class load). But the pool of eligible candidates to run the program dwindled as feminist faculty departed and, Walkowitz says, Hopkins failed to "actively recruit both female scholars and in particular feminist scholars." When Moon, an English professor, resigned from the directorship last August, there was no one left to assume the job.

"The administration had forewarning about this problem for years and they [did] nothing," Walkowitz says. "Basically the policy at Hopkins is do nothing and only react in a crisis."

In October, the advisory board, which had been set up on Walkowitz's watch, submitted to the university a proposal to save the struggling program, calling on Hopkins to relocate WG&S to a better building, give it an associate director, and conduct an outside search for a full-time director. Hopkins agreed to the first two requests (though to date it has not acted on them), but refused to hire a program head. In a Sept. 25, 2000, memo to the board, Richard McCarty, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, said the "aggressive hiring practices" of a predecessor in his post made it financially impossible to bring in someone to run WG&S. (David, the associate academic-affairs dean, says it's simply Hopkins policy to choose program directors from among existing faculty.) The board resigned a few weeks later, accusing McCarty's office of leaving the program "in a state of collapse."

Hopkins' course catalogue still offers a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality, but students pursuing the minor last fall in effect found it impossible to sign up, says Hopkins sophomore Emily Wentzell, a leader of Friends of WG&S. Wentzell says her repeated e-mails to the WG&S office went unanswered, and the program lacks an adviser for prospective minors. Student backers of the program circulated a petition and helped get the Hopkins Student Council to pass a resolution supporting WG&S, but the outcry "had no impact," Wentzell says, prompting the April 3 rally.

The goal of the rally is to get the administration to come up with a concrete plan to resurrect WG&S. The next step, Wentzell says, is a letter-writing campaign claiming the school is falsely advertising the existence of the program and urging high-school guidance counselors not to recommend Hopkins to prospective college students.

"What we're trying to do is just keep pressure on the administration . . . [and] reaffirm publicly that this program means a lot to a lot of people," she says.

Whether or not the spate of student activism succeeds in bolstering the program, Walkowitz says, the bad blood caused by its deterioration isn't likely to go away.

"I really don't understand the resistance of the administration on this point," she says. "They've caused an enormous amount of damage and distress."

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