Women's Studies on the Chopping Block

Kim Vaz, chair of the University of South Florida's women's studies department, has been in this position before. She's heard talk that her program, now the only free-standing one of its kind in Florida, would lose its autonomy, face cutbacks, or worse.

March 21, 2008

Kim Vaz, chair of the University of South Florida's women's studies department, has been in this position before. She's heard talk that her program, now the only free-standing one of its kind in Florida, would lose its autonomy, face cutbacks, or worse.

All of that's on the table again for women's studies, Africana studies and other small programs and centers after a task force of faculty, students and staff released a report this month that calls for major cuts in order to save the university millions of dollars in operating expenses.

"In good budget times," the report said, "we would keep these departments as is. However, given the [university] president's recent call for drastic budget cuts of approximately 15 percent, these two departments appear reasonable places to absorb some of these cuts."

The committee said that the undergraduate major could be cut in Africana studies and women's studies, and that the graduate degree could be eliminated in the latter department. These changes would result in some faculty budget lines being removed.

Shortly after the report was released, Ralph Wilcox, South Florida's provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, assured both of the departments that he would take into account other opinions, and that he didn't agree with the committee's call for eliminating degrees. Wilcox said he is committed to doing everything he can to keep tenure and tenure-track faculty, and not reducing student options.

But he told faculty leaders that their departments would likely look different administratively next year. That could mean merging the programs.

"If we find a way to reconfigure or realign these small departments in such a way that we can retain the academic programs they're delivering, we can also improve operational efficiencies," Wilcox said. "We don't have to provide a range of clerical support when it could be shared. We don't need to have full operating budgets for each program."

But to Vaz and other faculty members, the prospect of losing the free-standing status is disconcerting.

"It takes years to get departmental autonomy, and it means for us that we're a peer of other large departments," she said. "That gives you a voice that's different from one that a program director would have."

Last summer, South Florida's Faculty Senate recommended to the former provost that the university make "strategic" cuts rather than across-the-board cuts that would affect all academic units. The provost asked the task force to evaluate academic centers, institutes, programs and departments on the basis of their centrality, quality, demand and viability. The group spent a semester reviewing data, narratives from the departments and budget information.

Among the concerns the committee pointed to is the size of the programs. By the end of this academic year, both departments will have four full-time professors. The number of majors varies depending upon whether you count double majors, but department leaders say they are educating a proportionate share of students based on the small size of their faculty. The leaders also dispute the committee's conclusion that the programs lack research productivity or that they aren't viable.

Vaz, an associate professor, said those evaluating the departments need to keep in mind how many courses fulfill general education requirements, and how many of their faculty participate in university service. In a response to the task force report, John Skvoretz, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said smaller programs are vulnerable when it comes time for evaluation because contributions to the curriculum and intellectual life of the college are intangibles that aren't measured.

Deborah G. Plant, an associate professor and chair of the department of Africana studies, said she doesn't think the committee understands that programs like hers are underfunded and cannot offer their ideal breadth of programming.

"We've spent years building the department and trying year after year, dean after dean to convince them of the centrality of our studies," she said.

A loss of autonomy, Vaz added, would force the department to cut back its course offerings and limit its ability to determine the long-term direction of the program. Undergraduate and graduate students who might already have been hesitant to come into the department because of uncertainty will stay away, she worries.

Added Carolyn J. Eichner, an associate professor in the department: “Women's studies is a discrete discipline. It’s as though the university is denying that fact. I have a lovely relationship with the history department, but that's not my home."

Wilcox said he understands the concerns about viability if the departments' free-standing status is removed. But he argues that centralization could strengthen their positions if it comes time for a future budget cut.

"Rather than a four- or five-member department hanging out on the periphery ripe for picking in the minds of some, they can secure a more unified position," he said. "I don't think it's helpful to anyone to have small yet critical programs just barely surviving and always the seeming target for elimination."

Still, Vaz said that being in control of a budget allows her to bring women's study scholars to campus and to plan an annual meeting where professors on other campuses who don't have a full department can network. "If we're gone, what does that mean for women's studies on other campuses?" Vaz said.

Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women's Studies Association, said women's studies programs are often on the chopping block when it comes time for budget cuts. She wrote a letter to USF's department supporting its efforts to fight the committee's recommendations. Vaz said hundreds of women's studies professors elsewhere and supporters of the cause have signed an online petition to save the program's status.

“At a time when there is [national] growth in women’s studies at the doctoral level, it seems like an ill-conceived plan to dismantle the only free-standing department in the state of Florida," Kimmich said.

Some colleges, departments and centers have submitted responses to the committee's report. Wilcox said he hopes to make a final decision on the programs by the end of this academic year.


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