A new minor in a sociology department sounds like a pretty innocuous development. And the headline on a blog post last week from the president of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was labeled simply "New Minor in Sociology."
But the president, E. Joseph Savoie, was defending the new minor because it has come under attack by some social and political groups in the state, which question the minor because it is in LGBT (for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) studies. The minor is the first in the state, although some tracks in Tulane University's major in gender and sexuality studies may offer more of an emphasis on LGBT studies. Tulane is a private institution, however, and less vulnerable to political scrutiny.
The Louisiana Family Forum, which calls itself the "voice for traditional families" in the state and has considerable political influence in parts of Louisiana, denounced the minor, and that in turn prompted a series of newspaper articles in the state (some of them featuring comments denouncing the university), and statements from some politicians.
"Formerly, aberrant behavior among individuals was regarded with shame. Today, UL Lafayette proudly offers 'a degree in immorality.' Louisiana Family Forum is disappointed in this misuse of public and student tuition funds. UL’s advocacy for alternative lifestyles will certainly be met with opposition from taxpayers, tuition underwriters and other key UL supporters," says the forum's statement.
The forum also is questioning the website for the new program, which is fairly minimal, with listings of courses one would need to take to qualify for the major. "The university’s web page for the new LGBT minor clearly omits facts and statistics which demonstrate the medical, physical, emotional and dangers of a lifestyle which is counter to Louisiana values."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, a Republican, sent a letter to Savoie saying that future graduates of the university may not be able to be proud of the institution because of the new minor, KLFY News reported. The letter said that the new minor "fails to provide an economic benefit to the participants or financial sense for the taxpayer." (The minor is made of up currently offered courses taught by current faculty members, so university officials have said that it has no new expenses.)
The minor requires students to take two courses focused on gay studies: Introduction to LGBT Cultural Studies and Gender Across Cultures. Then students must take three more courses from among a range of offerings in the liberal arts disciplines, but the courses must have some LGBT content in them, so some sections of a course might not qualify while others would have enough content to be relevant to the minor.
In his statement on the controversy, President Savoie noted that while critics have called the minor a "degree," that's inaccurate. As is the case with all minors, they do not replace the major as the field in which students are awarded degrees. He argued that the minor is consistent with offerings of other colleges and universities and will help students.
"LGBT studies have been an academic area of study in the United States for nearly 50 years and exist at some 200 universities in the United States in a variety of forms as courses, minors or degree programs. Rooted in sociology, studies of human subgroups help prepare students for careers, such as counselors, personnel directors, teachers, social workers, criminal justice professionals, health care providers, managers and those involved in pastoral care," Savoie wrote. "Regardless of our personal feelings, as an academic institution, the university is obligated and committed to, within the law, the discovery and dissemination of knowledge, the protection of individual and group rights, and the preservation of religious and academic freedoms."
DeAnn Kalich, a sociology professor who is coordinating the minor, said via e-mail that she agreed with the president's post and that she did not want to comment on the criticisms of the program. But she said that it was important to offer instruction in this area. "People who are LGBT are a cultural minority that faces institutionalized and individualized discrimination. To offer factual education to interested students about violence, hate crime, bullying in schools, HIV/AIDS, legal issues, and other topics of global importance is to prepare them for the issues of the time," she said.