Gender $tudies – Can We Afford the Cost?

By Laura Howden

*Trigger Warnings: this article contains a brief mention of rape and sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised if sensitive to content of this nature.*

Two undergraduate students at the April 18 rally on UQ’s St Lucia campus, preparing to lead the march. (Photo captured by Laura Howden.)

Two undergraduate students at the April 18 rally on UQ’s St Lucia campus, preparing to lead the march. (Photo captured by Laura Howden.)

“When Gender Studies is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” The chant ripples through the crowd as we march across the St Lucia campus of The University of Queensland (UQ); a formidable assembly of staff and students armed with megaphones, banners and copies of an online petition that amassed some 836 signatures of support. Our final destination is the UQ senate meeting, at which representatives from UQ’s Gender Studies Teaching Committee hope to present evidence against the institution’s decision to abolish the major. Close to a dozen police officers await our arrival at the foot of the building. Requests to allow a delegation from our ranks to enter the senate are refused but, at the last, they allow a copy of the petition and two other documents to be handed through the line of officers and tabled by the board. When we finally disperse the protestors’ anger and frustration is palpable, and it is clear that this issue is a long way away from reaching any kind of resolution.

The April 18 rally was organised in response to an announcement by the university’s Executive Arts Dean, Fred D’Agostino, that as of 2014 Gender Studies would no longer be offered as a choice of major for undergraduate students (with existing students given the option to continue on until 2018). One week prior to the protest event, Mr D’Agostino was quoted in The Australian newspaper as saying he “was not aware” of any complaints from undergraduate students – this in spite of the vocal ‘Save Gender Studies’ student collective on campus, which held its first meeting of the year on March 11.

But it has not just been local students standing up and speaking out against the cuts. Director of Gender Studies at Melbourne University, Professor Jeanette Hoorn, spoke both at the rally and at an earlier forum alongside members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). She noted in each of her talks that UQ would now be the only GO8 university in Australia not to offer a gender or women’s studies program, and urged UQ administrators to recognise its significance beyond the classroom. “I believe you cannot do any gender studies in Iran these days,” Professor Hoorn said at the rally. “It’s a shame you can’t do much in Queensland either.”

The social and cultural importance of gender studies touched upon by Professor Hoorn has, so far, been a discourse somewhat lacking in current Brisbane campaigns against the cuts. Much of the focus has (understandably) been around issues of finances and the practical implications for staff and students. Over its 41 years at UQ, the degree has received little monetary support from the university. This is, perhaps, compounded by the fact that Gender Studies and humanities courses at large do not attract as many enrolments from full fee paying, international students; the types of students (and money) that Australian universities, according to The Age columnist Erica Cervini, are scrambling to attract and “lock in.”

It would be similarly remiss to overlook the impacts such course cuts will have on Queensland students. With UQ being the last tertiary institution in the state to offer Gender Studies courses, from this year onwards students will have to relocate interstate to pursue a research major in this field: a considerable practical and financial burden for many prospective undergraduates.

But perhaps it is time to extend the discussion, to more deeply examine the social costs of de-prioritising subjects that critically challenge the politics, cultures and values of our world. Following my attendance at the April 18 rally, I received correspondence from a PhD candidate and part time women’s studies lecturer at The University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Andrew Robinson’s experiences bear some resemblance to the situation presently unfolding at UQ, with his university cutting women’s studies as a major in 2009 and consequently offloading piecemeal courses to part time lecturers. According to Mr Robinson, this decision “worked to dismantle” the strong sense of community and history first established during the program’s inception in 1979.

As one such part time lecturer appointed to a dwindling number of women’s studies courses, he has encountered students over the past four years that he believes are the brightest, most passionate and most critical thinkers of any he has experienced in previous teaching posts. First and foremost among the concerns Mr Robinson expressed, however, was that the decision to discontinue women’s studies at The University of Guelph has led to a vital part of campus culture and social justice being broken up. Academic conversation challenging “sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and transphobia,” so he believes, is slowly and systematically being silenced.

One of his former pupils, Emily McRobert, managed to graduate from the university with a women’s studies degree. She has been an active member and leader within the fight for its return as a fully fledged major, and related to me her efforts to keep “some form of feminism alive on campus” through the creation of a feminist publication (not unlike the UQ Women’s Collective’s own Wom*News magazine!). Ms McRobert also organised a radio program in 2012 with a friend to cover the history of women’s studies at The University of Guelph and the protest actions of recent years that have galvanised a number of diverse groups – both on campus and in the wider community. Students, lecturers and even members of the university administration have found common ground in recognising the need for contemporary society, and academia, to value the perspectives of more than just (as one of Ms McRobert’s interviewees, a 4th year women’s studies student named Julia, phrased it) “old white dudes.”

Ms McRobert’s radio program also referenced responses from university officials who, at the time of the cuts, suggested the women’s studies courses would be replaced by a more modernized gender & sexuality studies major. But as it stands this is an unlikely prospect. “I was speaking to the former head of the department and he said he’d heard nothing of the conversation of a new program in years,” McRoberts told me, in a recent email exchange. “We’re quickly losing the history and memory that Guelph ever had a Women’s Studies program. It’s really sad.”

Back on home soil and a postdoctoral student from The University of Melbourne, Michelle Smith, has challenged the seeming irrelevance of gender studies in our “post feminist” society. An article recently written by Ms Smith points to the recent tragedy of the sexual assault and rape of a young woman in Steubenville, America, as evidence of the gender inequality still prevalent within Western culture.

Certainly, the statistics within our own country are fairly grim. Based on police data and studies by Victoria’s Centre Against Sexual Assault, one in three women will be sexually abused before the age of 16. The greatest proportion of victims (and survivors) in Australia are girls between the ages of 10 and 14; the next highest proportion, women between 15 and 24 years. 93 percent of offenders of sexual violence are male. Ms Smith, highlighting the response of American former musician, Henry Rollins, to the Steubenville case, believes such figures are indicative of a need to educate and transform the thinking of young men and woman.  “… This is a failure on many levels,” Mr Rollins wrote on his blog, linked to in Ms Smith’s article. “Things get better when women get more equality. Let young people understand that women have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages and [that] they are worthy of respect.”

Ms Smith has several recommendations for how this might be achieved. By implementing women’s studies into high school and tertiary curriculums. By looking at the dissolution of gender studies at institutions like UQ beyond purely economic motivations. By critiquing the heavy “male orientation” of local and global academic disciplines, and acknowledging the transformative feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s that legitimised the place of women within scholastic, social and political spheres.

Mr D’Agostino has, on The University of Queensland’s official website, said that courses related to gender studies will remain; that students will have access to the expertise of staff who will continue to lead research within this “important area of enquiry.” But without a dedicated major, staff and students living in Queensland will no longer be able to truly focus their studies in this area. If the recent rally was any indication, the continuation of separate gender studies courses is not a palatable compromise for affected teachers and students.

It is difficult to say what the real and ongoing costs of cutting this major will be, but it is clear that the significance of gender and women’s studies is close to the heart of many Brisbane (and international) academics. My first hand experiences and research have revealed – although perhaps no ‘bottom dollar’ evidence in favour of preserving gender studies that might satisfy the fiscal priorities of administrative staff – an urgent need for an ongoing critique of how women are perceived and represented in Western society. It is hard to say whether or not this can be achieved at UQ in light of the abolition of a dedicated gender studies discipline. But to put a price tag on women’s and gender studies in our local and international academic communities is, undeniably, to miss their true worth.

References

CASA. 2013. ‘Fact Sheet: Statistics About Sexual Assault.’ Retrieved from http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics

EdXpress. 2013. ‘Body Blow to Gender Studies Program at UQ.’ NTEU: National Tertiary Education Union. Retrieved from https://www.nteu.org.au/article/Body-blow-to-gender-studies-major-at-UQ-14605

McRoberts, E. 2012. ‘CFRU Radio Program: 93.3fm.’ Retrieved from http://archive.cfru.ca/archive/2012/04/23/Mycorrhizal%20-%20April%2023,%202012%20at%2012:00%20-%20CFRU%2093.3.mp3

Rollins, H. 2013. ‘Henry Rollins: Dispatch, Los Angeles.’ Retrieved from http://henryrollins.com/dispatch/detail/dispatch_03-17-12_los_angeles/ 

Smith, M. 2013. ‘Why We Need Gender Studies.’ Women’s Agenda. Retrieved from http://www.womensagenda.com.au/talking-about/opinions/why-we-need-gender-studies/201304171996

Starkey. M. 2013. ‘April 18 2013.’ UQ Senate Meeting Reports: 2013. Retrieved from http://itee.uq.edu.au/~mstarkey/Senate%20Meeting%20Reports/2013/2013_April_18.htm  

Varley, C (Quoting Fred D’Agostino). 2013. ‘Gender Studies at The University of Queensland.’ UQ News. Retrieved from http://www.uq.edu.au/news/?article=25969

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