Women’s Studies at BYU: Parity or Parody?

Bored in Vernal BYU, women 31 Comments

Avatar-BiV When I first discovered that BYU had announced the closing of their Women’s Research Institute, I was appalled, as were many interested parties both on campus and off. I sat down immediately to write a post on the subject, but soon I was brought up short. On Tuesday, when I heard the news, there were exactly two sources of information on the subject. One was a short article at “Square Two,” written by anonymous parties connected with the WRI. The other was the terse news release on the BYU website. Neither of these sources gave enough information for me to form an opinion on whether I supported or disagreed with the change, or for that matter, what exactly the change would entail. Later articles in the Tribune and Deseret News as well as several blog posts (BCC, Ex2, FMH) gave additional tidbits of information and different perspectives. A facebook group was formed called “Save BYU’s Women’s Research Institute.”

Since I am currently visiting Provo from out of town, I determined I would poke around to see if I could clarify this odd move on BYU’s part. Last night I attended a meeting of the campus group “Parity,” a club dedicated to equality between men and women within LDS doctrine, where they discussed the closing of the WRI and brainstormed ways to protest the action. The meeting simply added to the questions I already had.

It seems to me that there are reasons to move cautiously in protesting this change in status for women at BYU. Placing the Women’s Studies minor under the Sociology Department in the College of Family, Home, and Social Science (FHSS) might be just what is needed to build the program and give it more legitimacy than it currently has. Between 6 and 8 students per year minor in Women’s Studies (of a student body of approximately 35,000). There are five classes offered by the minor, along with courses from other departments which are required or suggested. All of these classes combined serve a total of about 2000 students, many of whom are taking the classes as requirements for Psychology, Sociology, Home and Family Living, or Food Science.

Co-presidents of Parity Ellen Decoo and Hwanhi Chung ran the meeting and expressed concerns strongly and articulately with the input and added direction of sociology major Sara Vranes. Present at the meeting were 78 students, not more than 5 older community members, and one male faculty member, who did not comment. The organizers called for caution in expressing concerns, coming from prior experience that “activism has to be done differently at BYU.” The most overtly feminist statement came from a male student, who commented that this was “one more example of the closed decision-making process at BYU by an exclusive board of white males.” He was quickly shut down by female voices throughout the room, who said, “we have to be realistic, we’re at BYU, we have to work with where we’re at.”

Although it is still unclear exactly who was involved in the decision to close WRI or how it was made, at least one woman was a member of the internal review board which initiated the process. Renata Forste, who will administer Women’s Studies beginning in January, gave a 45 minute interview to BYU student and protest organizer Sara Vranes during which she explained her plans to form an interdisciplinary committee in an attempt to bring together aspects of women’s research which will now be fragmented into different areas around the University. The students are concerned that budgets and programs will be cut or less accessible, and that professors who are already overstretched will be unable to accomplish a comparable program to that which was offered under the previous director, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill. (Ballif-Spanvill’s PhD is in Educational Psychology and her research interests and publications have focused on gender issues, community development, nonviolence and conflict resolution. Forste’s PhD is in Sociology and her research interests and publications are in the areas of fertility, infant and child survival, breastfeeding, patterns of family formation, and fatherhood.) The members of Parity are concerned about the message that this symbolic action sends to students, faculty and the world about BYU’s attitude toward women. But most of all, they are feeling that their voices are not heard. Students were unable to secure interviews with school administrators to discuss the issue, and were told they “did not have a good enough reason” to merit interviews with John Tanner, David Magelby, or Cecil Samuelson. Some of the suggestions for protesting included a “Day of Silence” and a “Die-in,” which to me eloquently expressed their feelings of disempowerment. On the other hand, professors such as Clyde Robinson believe that the move is merely an efficient use of resources. “The university couldn’t justify having an independent institute for women’s studies,” he told me, “because women’s issues and gender studies are researched all over campus in many different departments.”

As I have researched the details of BYU’s reorganization of Women’s Studies, I have discovered a pattern. Many programs have recently been absorbed into broader areas of administration. For example, in 2005 the Smith Institute was dropped from BYU and relocated in the Church History Department, with various academic departments at BYU to continue research in church history topics. In August of 2009 the Health and Human Performance Department was discontinued and the departments and programs were realigned with other colleges including Fine Arts, Life Sciences, and Management. Under the administration of David Magelby, the Dean of FHSS,the Social Work major was discontinued in 2007 after a year-long study which suggested that undergraduates major in psychology or some related field and then complete a graduate degree in Social Work (which has been retained at BYU). A commenter on the Tribune article, sms35, articulates the concerns about Magelby’s approach:

The administration I think made a poor move on this. It has nothing to do with the LDS Church. The Dean does not like interdisciplinary programs bottom line. So while I think that there is a small component against women here, I do not believe that this is about the position of the women in the church per se.

The main problem is the Dean has no clue why it is so important. In my opinion he looks at the research that is done there and believes that it can be just as easily done by the people in their own departments. This is simply not true. The WRI was intrumental in organizing all of the efforts that we as individual researchers tried to accomplish. It would not have been as easy, or even possible without the WRI.

And that is just internal to BYU, outside of BYU it was fantastic to visit with other scholars and tell them you were a part of the WRI and BYU. It was a major factor in convincing other scholars that their perception of BYU as misogynistic were ill founded.

The WRi was always more than just the WomanStudies program and the research. It was also a very powerful message to the world that the LDS church took women seriously. It was never a huge organization, but it was growing and now, just as it was gathering the needed momentum this happened.

I am hoping that further information is forthcoming from BYU about how the change will “streamline and strengthen” Women’s Studies at the university. The public does not seem to understand how elimination of the WRI will strengthen research in Women’s Studies at BYU. The following are questions which are still unanswered:

  • How will the addition of the Women’s Studies minor affect the Sociology Department?
  • Is this setting up competition with the soc majors for funds?
  • What will happen to the outside sources of funding which were solicited by the WRI?
  • Would a Woman’s Studies program be better off in an actual department, with a woman department head, 7 full-time women faculty and 20 total faculty members; than in a research institute with funding for one and a half faculty positions?
  • Does any other subject in the university have a separate institute for research, or is all research conducted under the umbrella of a department?
  • What do Dr. Bonnie Baliff-Spanvill and Dr. Renata Forste (new chair of the Women Studies minor) think of this change?
  • Isn’t it archaic to have a women’s studies program? Wouldn’t it be more PC to have a “gender studies” program, as Harvard has done?

Comments

comments

Comments 31

  1. As a former alum (albeit nearly 30 years ago in the age of the 7th East Press) of BYU and a male, I’m probably completely inadequate to comment on Women’s studies issues, but I have four daughters and a wife so I have a little experience. I’ve also read a small smattering of the more gound breaking feminists (I really enjoy reading Camille Paglia) and helped one daughter through a Gender Study class and I have some thoughts on your post from an outsider’s perspective.

    The move by the administration seems to be more based on eliminating a program that could be looked at or perceived as “lesbian” or even sexual. You can’t study Gender Studies in today’s world without looking at Dworkin, McKinnon and a whole host of lesbian bi-sexual and transgendered writers. You also can’t study Gender Studies without looking at sexuality, another big no-no at Harvard of the West. In case you don’t believe me, look at all the sex, religion and GLBT in the classes at the Harvard of the East:

    http://wgs.fas.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k53419&pageid=icb.page274881

    The fact that BYU is fifteen to twenty years behind the political correctness in naming its Gender Studies program is no surprise. Blacks got the priesthood 20 years after the Civil Rights movement. There was a brief period of 60s political radicalism at BYU in the early 80s with Eugene England and friends in the honors department at BYU, promoting Lech Walesa and metaphoric Mormonism, ala Joseph Campbell. The sad fact is that my alma mater (mater is Latin for mother — I don’t know it seems relevant) seems destined to educational ignomiy by forgetting that the Glory of God is intelligence, or in other words light and truth. And light and truth aren’t usually found when you bury things in the Sociology Department.

  2. BIV:

    I strongly appreciate the balance that you often bring to controversial issues. You know how to dig deeply and how to bring out subtleties that others miss. You are one of my blog heroines (or for the sake of parity, should I say heroes?).

  3. It seems to me that if women’s issues and gender studies are of interest to so many other departments within BYU that having them centralized, resourced and available within the WRI to disseminate for specialized study and application in other departments makes perfect sense. Allowing them to be peripheral issues to other disciplines is the surest way to guarantee that they be marginalized or lost completely.

  4. 6-8 students a year out of 35,000 sounds like a reason to cut a program. And if it is true that the Dean doesn’t have a clue as to why Women’s Studies is important, which I fully believe of a BYU male Dean, then there you have it. Lesbianism never crossed my mind as I read this and considered the Women’s Studies program that I was aware of at UCLA, but Ulysses is probably right. BYU is trying to avoid the appearance of evil. Funny, all those men doing all kinds of stuff together in priesthood sessions NEVER brings up the idea of homosexuality, but put a few women together to talk about improvements for them and the human family and RED ALERT! there must be lesbians about. Sheesh.

  5. Ulysses #1, I appreciate your comment. In the Parity meeting it was noted that when the WRI was reviewed last year, it was decided that only an internal review would be done. An external review would undoubtedly point out that issues of sexuality and GLBT factors were not being considered at BYU, and they wanted to avoid this very thing.

    Faux, Thanks! I wanted to be balanced in this post, because there are so many things we still do not know about the direction Women’s Studies will take at BYU in the future. What a shame it would be to try to bring back the WRI if there are better ways to strengthen the program and encourage women’s studies. But I can admit to having a certain amount of regret that the Institute will be discontinued.

    Alice, I certainly hope gender studies are important enough to BYU students, faculty, and administration that they will not allow them to be marginalized, and that the demand for great classes and research will grow and keep them alive and thriving.

  6. How will the addition of the Women’s Studies minor affect the Sociology Department?
    I don’t see it having an immediate sweeping effect on the department. Over time (if BYU ever escapes from the hiring freeze), as they bring new faculty in, there will probably be more faculty with focus on Women’s Studies. In the mean time, they’ll use their resources as best they can, and certainly bring in professors with relevant knowledge from other departments to assist with the classes. Psychology professory Niwako Yamawaki, for one, will probably be fairly involved.
    Is this setting up competition with the soc majors for funds?
    I don’t believe it is. As I understand it, the funding will be reallocated to activities still related to the WRI. There is also a new university grant being established, $25,000 yearly for researchers studying women’s issues. Can’t remember the name right now.
    What will happen to the outside sources of funding which were solicited by the WRI?
    Not knowing the actual sources, it’s difficult to say. FHSS will probably have to illustrate how their money would actually be going to the same kinds of activities, just not within the structure of WRI.
    Would a Woman’s Studies program be better off in an actual department, with a woman department head, 7 full-time women faculty and 20 total faculty members; than in a research institute with funding for one and a half faculty positions?
    Good luck with that. If I’m remembering right, there has been a minor for several years already, though hardly anyone knew about it. It took me 5 years and a required WS course to finally hear of 1 person who was in the minor. You’d have to promote and improve BYU’s current WS resources quite dramatically to get funding, community/church support, etc. before establishing what would essentially be a whole new department. Those things won’t come out of nowhere.
    Does any other subject in the university have a separate institute for research, or is all research conducted under the umbrella of a department?
    I don’t believe there are any other independent (as in not tied to a department) institutes. BYU doesn’t seem to work that way, unlike some of the massive extra-departmental institutional networks at Ivy League universities. Usually to get a research institute established you have to tie it to a department, at least at first. As it gains repute among the other institutes in the field, it can work towards more independence.
    What do Dr. Bonnie Baliff-Spanvill and Dr. Renata Forste (new chair of the Women Studies minor) think of this change?
    I haven’t heard much of Dr. Baliff-Spanvill’s opinion, but I do know that Dr. Forste is rather enthusiastic about it. It will be a definite change, but I think Dr. Forste will embrace the new system.
    Isn’t it archaic to have a women’s studies program? Wouldn’t it be more PC to have a “gender studies” program, as Harvard has done?
    I could (and actually did, once) write pages upon pages about this. Regardless of PC, I think it’s much more equitable to have a gender studies program that has emphasis balanced between women’s *and* men’s studies. And isn’t the point of women’s studies about equity in understanding about women? (I’ve thought about proposing pretty much the same thing as JD said, though I’m not exactly in a position where it would be effective or beneficial to anyone.) I think you would probably also get a better balance of men and women involved, which I think offers a more balanced perspective to any research/education program.

    FWIW, I think it’s quite unlikely that David Magleby has a grudge of some sort against WS. With the Social Work program, it had stagnated academically. Faculty were not pursuing continuing research or education programs that were anywhere near the standard which the rest of the university is held to. “Insider” information made it clear that the university was fully willing to re-form the program once everything was for sure up to standards. The WRI was quite possibly in the same situation, where it had come to a point where future growth was appearing tenuous (and that doesn’t do much for the university’s women’s research reputation). I wouldn’t be surprised to see the WRI or a similar institute be re-established in the future after a new foundation and presence for the program is formed.

  7. Women, in the Holy Scheme of Things, exist to bear children, raise them up in The Church, and take care of the home and those who reside within… Meaning cook my dinner, thank you very much!

    A Women’s Research Institute need only exist in the furtherance of the above. How better to conceive and bear children, how better to raise children in The Church, and how better to fix my dinner! And God in His Wisdom had already established such a program in The Church: Relief Society!!!

    When I was at the Y, women knew their place, which was as Child Development & Family Relations majors.

    I told the 15 that allowing women to vote was setting a bad precedent! I know this to be true in Jesus name, amen.

  8. I assume you’re simply trying to be as offensive as possible. As for women voting, I guess you are fully aware that Utah was the 2nd state in the nation to allow women to vote. I guess Brigham Young didn’t view that as a bad precedent.

  9. Elder Ol Dog-loving it.Sometimes I wonder if it helps to be European in order to appreciate satire.I love any man who can make me laugh.

  10. Satire is a beautiful thing and the poor wayfarer got it and MH missed it. Elder Old Dog wasn’t being serious or offensive, unless pointing out how a substantial portion of the Mormon male population is offensive is considered an offensive act.

    And as for Brigham wanting the women to vote, with 26 wives why would you want to surrender such a large constinuency to gender bias?

  11. And as for Brigham wanting the women to vote, with 26 wives why would you want to surrender such a large constinuency to gender bias?

    Word. 😉

  12. Thanks for the clear summary of the situation. I didn’t know that a women’s studies minor existed when I was a student 12 years ago. I only learned about it this summer when we moved back to Provo. The WRI offered other services, like a morning yoga class as well as other seminars. Do you know any way to find out if those will continue?

    I can see why the WRI could be cut from a numbers standpoint. Throughout the Cougareat, all the tables have little cards advertising the women’s studies minor, but I guess it didn’t boost enrollment enough. The grating part of the decision is the way it was handed down, a done deal, with no opportunity for student and community input. I suppose that’s just a result of our authoritarian culture.

  13. Thank you for the larger context. “Between 6 and 8 students per year minor in Women’s Studies” and “I do know that Dr. Forste is rather enthusiastic about it” tells me a lot.

    Thank you for providing a clear view of what is going on.

  14. BiV: thanks also for the clear and balanced on-the-ground reporting. I had seen the news about the reorganization, but had no other details. To paraphrase Napoleon, never ascribe to malice what can be explained by bureaucracy and academic politics. 😉 ..bruce..

  15. “I assume you’re simply trying to be as offensive as possible. As for women voting, I guess you are fully aware that Utah was the 2nd state in the nation to allow women to vote. I guess Brigham Young didn’t view that as a bad precedent.”

    I always thought Mormon Utah gave women the right to vote was to simply make more Mormon voters. Not true? As patriarchal as the pioneers were, I can’t imagine it was thinking women had something to offer.

  16. I was at the Parity meeting too (in fact I think I might have been sitting near you!)

    You’ve raised some great points in this post, but I need to clarify one thing – you say the minor only has 6-8 students enrolled each year. However,

    A – the minor actually *graduates* 6-8 students each year, which is only a fraction of the students who enroll. Why do so few finish the minor? Well, most of them are scared away by the rigorous (but highly rewarding) research class they have to complete as a capstone to the minor. Is the low enrollment problematic? Absolutely, and perhaps that was Renata Forste’s motivation for pushing to get control of the minor into her own hands.

    B – controlling the minor was only one of the many responsibilities of the WRI. Even if moving it into Dr. Forste’s grasping hands (sorry, it just irks me a bit that she has no background in women’s Studies and yet managed to arrange this by joining the internal review committee) is for the best of the minor, why not allow the WRI to continue pursuing collaborative, interdisciplinary research with the outside-BYU funds they’ve been using all these years?

    C – I graduated from the minor, along with a BA in English. I love sociology, and as a result I made sure to take a few sociology classes to cover requirements in the minor. But the fact that the minor was not housed in the social sciences prevented me from ever feeling like the other humanities majors and I were being academically marginalized. As an alumnus of the program, I can assure you that many students from other colleges will feel alienated by this decision to put an interdisciplinary study into one discipline.

  17. I have a low opinion of *all* majors ending in “studies,” including the discipline of (IIRC) the Quorum of the Twelve’s only Ph.D.

  18. I was rather appalled at the description I read about the closure of the Women’s Research Institute and thank you for writing this post. The image I had was that a building dedicated to Women’s research was being vacated. That seemed rather bleak. It would have been a little helpful for the announcement to describe in more detail what is was that they were closing, although I suppose that opens them up for more flack. It is somewhat reassuring to read that the minor will still be available, but existing as a sub-section of a department relegates Womens Studies to a lower profile, no matter how you look at it.

    I rejected BYU in favor of a state university so I don’t do BYU logic well. I know that art majors must study bodysuit clad models etc. So you can really take Sociology from BYU and not talk about gay and lesbian sociology? I remember the guest panel of gays and lesbians that came to my sociology class and (back then) the groans and oooohs of the back row sorority crowd as they discussed their social practices. I bet today (20 years later) the same panel probably would not elicit much of a visceral reaction at the same university.

    The nest year, I was one of 3 men in a Women’s Studies class. I was naive and didn’t know what I was getting into, but I learned a lot. I was introduced to Maya Angelou, Ashtoreth, and Sapphos. We read Ann Moody’s “Growing up in Mississippi.” We read one of those wierd stories about an Island inhabited only by women who were able to reproduce and how their society adapts without male influence. Also read “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin which was rather depressing.

    We had some good discussions about Eve and one in one of my essays I compared the LDS scripture’s treatment of Eve to the the treatment of Eve in the OT. The instructor wrote the question in my essay, “Is this really what the Mormon’s believe?”

    I cannot think that a university of BYU’s size and stature could ignore the need to have a Women’s Studies program. I hope that the theory that the move uses resources more efficiently is borne out.

  19. Emily, thank you so much for your input. I really wish there was more of an interest in Women’s Studies at BYU. I think there are so many factors that went into this decision that I still cannot venture much of an opinion. I WAS rather surprised, given Dr. Forste’s areas of education and research interest, that she is now the overseer of the Women’s Studies minor. But I think that there is enough support left that gender studies can grow at BYU if there are students willing to take the classes and people interested in doing research. No matter how the program is administered, the fear is that there are just too few people affiliated with BYU who will get involved.

  20. Rigel: So you can really take Sociology from BYU and not talk about gay and lesbian sociology? Well, I think you probably can take sociology without talking about homosexuality in a societal context (I’m not sure whether you’re referring to the major or any one class; I don’t think you could get through the major without touching it, but I do think certain classes won’t get into it because it’s not fully relevant). Though it’s probably not likely to get a guest panel of gays and lesbians.

    The next year, I was one of 3 men in a Women’s Studies class. I smile because I was one of two men in my Women’s Studies class at BYU. Talk about being outnumbered… Anyhow, the class was somewhat interesting, but not much different from my expectations. (My expectations being that we would talk some about differences between men and women, then spend the bulk of the class talking about the social injustices against women and all the ways that our society needs to change.)

    Some people might see that as offensive, but — sparing y’all the long explanation — I just think that the focus should be more on future direction and less on past infractions. Which is, in a roundabout way, why I hope that this reorganization will lead to an institute for gender studies (both men and women). I really think that this WRI move is transitional, with an end goal of setting up a more valuable and prominent program.

  21. I have a low opinion of *all* majors ending in “studies,” including the discipline of (IIRC) the Quorum of the Twelve’s only Ph.D.

    Well, Elder Packer has an EdD in educational administration, I believe. Elder Nelson got an MD and, 7 years later, a PhD (can’t find the subject quickly, but probably not anything ending in “studies”, seeing as he was a well-known heart surgeon by then). Elder Oaks, of course, has a JD. Elder Scott all but earned what would have been a PhD in nuclear engineering (he wasn’t awarded a formal degree because his work was for the government and classified). And, of course, Elder Holland got a PhD in American Studies. Elder Bednar has a PhD in organizational behavior. Elder Cook and Elder Christoffersen also earned JD’s. Elder Eyring has a PhD in business administration. So, maybe only a few PhD’s in there, but plenty of D’s of some sort.

  22. #23: OK, so I’m woefully underinformed about the wealth of PhDs among the Twelve. Have the JDs sue me.

    “Educational administration” — *shudder.* Even worse than a major ending in “studies.” Waypoint #35 of the Decline of American Civilization was the invention of the graduate school of education.

  23. Yeah, at some point education about education about education etc. etc. should be counterproductive. If only they could be educated on that.

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  25. The claim that BYU’s board is all male is false. On the other hand I know there is no way BYU would approve a “gender studies program”. In LDS philosophy there is a clear role and position of women. It is no more discriminatory to have a “women’s studies rpgram” than to have a “Latin American studies program”.

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