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Why Not A Feminist Overhaul of Higher Education?

by Daphne Patai

The following essay, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on January 23, 1998, has been made available to WMST-L by its author, Daphne Patai. It is a response to the document Vision 2000, described by its authors as "a call to our Presidents and Chancellors to ensure full and equitable participation by women in the New England Land Grant Universities." The WMST-L File List also includes a 1992 essay by Patai, The Struggle for Feminist Purity Threatens the Goals of Feminism, as well as a WMST-L discussion of Patai and Koertge's 1994 book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies.

An attempted coup has hit New England universities. A remarkable document has surfaced, the handiwork of the New England Council of Land-Grant University Women (a group formed several years ago to develop an "agenda for women" in the six New England land-grant universities). "Vision 2000" proposes a number of "goals" designed to "promote equity for women" in the next century. What Neanderthal would challenge such a worthy aim? Answer: one who questions dubious premises; one who worries about means as well as ends; one who fears for the harm done to academic liberties when self-appointed agents of a supposedly oppressed group are allowed to direct a corrective program.

At the six universities, representatives of campus women's centers, women's-studies programs, and commissions and councils on the status of women developed their proposals over a three-year period. Inspired by a 1993 report produced by a panel of the Faculty Senate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the group came up with nine long-term recommendations, accompanied by the following short-term strategy: First, ask each university to endorse the document "in principle," and then work out specific measures according to each campus's needs.

This reasonable-sounding approach has already met with some success. The presidents of the Universities of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have given the document their personal endorsement, and the authors of "Vision 2000" are hoping to win approval by the presidents' council of the six land-grant universities at its February meeting -- and then to persuade university presidents nationwide to endorse the report.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, however, misgivings among some faculty members have prompted the Faculty Senate to refer the document to committee for further study. For, when examined critically, "Vision 2000" reveals itself to be a stunningly imperialistic move to put in place a questionable feminist agenda, thinly disguised as a plea for equal opportunity and fairness.

"Vision 2000" makes recommendations covering virtually all aspects of university life, from salaries to course content, from research to teaching styles and campus life.

It begins by invoking the purportedly sorry state of women in higher education. Few reasonable observers would accept this claim today, given increases in female graduation rates, and women's entry into professional schools and faculty ranks, but relentless feminist propaganda has confused the evidence. At the University of Massachusetts, for example, female students interviewed in December by a local newspaper readily asserted that they had not personally encountered bias in the classroom; nonetheless, they assumed that it exists.

Is the assumption correct? It is worth asking that question before endorsing calls for "women-friendly" classrooms and obligatory sensitivity training for professors and others who do not share the goals of "Vision 2000."

Most of the charges made in "Vision 2000" presuppose their own validity. The authors of the document rest their case on inflammatory rhetoric that tends, for example, to assume that sexual violence is widespread. ("Women face sexual violence and sexual harassment in the classroom and in the workplace, and are too often silenced by a system that protects the perpetrators of these crimes.") Are rape and sexual assault indeed routine occurrences at universities? Is harassment really widespread?

Concerning areas in which women are underrepresented, the report assumes that such "disproportions" are a sign of discrimination. But might women not be underrepresented in engineering, for instance, because of their own preferences?

The solutions proposed by "Vision 2000" are as sweeping as its charges. "Training" in how to avoid sexual harassment is prescribed for everyone in the university. Disciplinary action (unspecified) taken against offending supervisors must satisfy the injured "supervisee." "Groups" (again unspecified -- fraternities? football teams?) shown to be implicated in violence against women at a higher rate than the average for other campus groups "are to be deprived of recognition and support." Campus women's centers will be established where they do not already exist, and campus leaders should "rely upon" them for guidance "in their efforts to encourage, support, and maintain new roles for women."

The curriculum should be transformed into one that is "women-friendly and culturally diverse." That process, too, will be "best conducted with guidance from an autonomous Women's Studies site and active Women's Studies scholars." Graduate work in women's studies must be made available at each institution, and "equitable recognition" (whatever that might mean) is to be given to the "substance and methodologies" of work in women's studies.

In these and similar ways, "Vision 2000" aims at nothing less than a feminist overhaul of the entire academic enterprise, for, the report notes, "[w]omen's status within American higher education reflects an intellectual bias that is deeply rooted in the disciplinary methods and social assumptions of university communities." Student evaluations will include questions on the inclusiveness of the curriculum and the "appropriateness of teaching methods to different kinds of students." By 2000, faculty members "whose students identify their courses, teaching styles, and mentoring as failing to be inclusive [will] not receive teaching prizes, satisfactory teaching evaluations, or merit raises." Presidents and chancellors are to hold "department heads accountable for improvement in achieving gender equity," and to "reward" departments that demonstrate measurable progress and "intervene" in those that do not.

One would hardly guess from all this that "Vision 2000" refers to universities in late-20th-century America. Of course, the authors had to paint a dismal picture to justify the extraordinary measures that their report proposes. But it is the distance between the actual and the putative condition of women, and between the positive-sounding goals and the sanctions threatened against resisters and nonconformists, that exposes the power game being played.

If put into effect, the measures outlined above would establish women's studies and its allies in campus women's centers as the arbiters of university policy -- with rights of supervision over administrators, faculty members, and programs.

It is not possible to understand fully the impulses behind "Vision 2000" without taking a long-range view of how feminism has developed within academe over the past three decades. The early 1970s witnessed much debate about which of two strategies feminists should follow: Should they aim at establishing separate women's-studies programs, or work through existing departments? The women's-studies route won out, and now about 650 women's-studies programs exist in American universities, offering undergraduate concentrations and majors and, increasingly, graduate programs as well.

Initially, separate programs were an important asset for women. They helped feminist scholars achieve tenure and promotion that they might well have been denied in other departments. But, as was foreseen in the early debate, that success has had a certain "ghettoizing" effect. Although many institutions now have adopted "diversity" requirements that students can meet by taking women's-studies courses, some areas of the university do remain untouched by feminism. The hard sciences, in particular, have tended to reject the overt politicization imposed by feminist perspectives. When women's studies attacks science as "masculinist" -- a routine charge in much feminist writing -- few faculty members in physics or chemistry seem to care. To a feminism that rests on a totalizing epistemology, such indifference cannot be countenanced.

"Vision 2000" is designed to complete the great transformation. Above all, it is a plan for policing the struggle for gender equity, based on the anachronistic insistence that inequality characterizes women's status in every aspect of university life. The report depicts faculty members, department chairs, and deans as incapable of doing the right thing without feminist supervision. Although the word "mandatory" does not appear in the document, the spirit that animates it has little of the voluntary in it.

As "Vision 2000" makes abundantly clear, women's studies wants to be the central player in the restructuring of university life. In our 1994 book, Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies, Noretta Koertge, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University at Bloomington, and I described the ways in which many women's-studies programs have allowed the political mission of training feminist cadres to override educational concerns. The strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.

At my own university, faculty members in women's studies have supported a radical speech code that would have seriously impeded free expression. They have also supported the decision to make faculty members document, on official, annual-report forms used in promotion, tenure, and salary reviews, their "significant contributions to multiculturalism."

Should administrators, department heads, and faculty members really surrender the university to ideologues? Women's studies got its first foothold in academe by invoking the liberal values of tolerance and intellectual openness. Once entrenched, however, and in defiance of both the historical record and common sense, women's studies has turned on those very values, rejecting them as helping to sustain the hated status quo. If the future represented in "Vision 2000" were to come to pass, 2000 would look remarkably like Orwell's 1984. Will it be any comfort that Big Brother will have turned into Big Sister?

Daphne Patai (daphne.patai @ spanport.umass.edu) is a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Copyright © 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 01/23/98
Section: Opinion
Page: A56

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