This article comes to us from Caroline Kovesi by way of the Halifax Media Co-op.
Note: Since this article was published on February 8, the Women’s and Gender Studies steering committee has received confirmation from Mount Allison’s administration that the “WGST program will receive a 12-month McCain Postdoctoral Fellowship to sustain the program through the 2016/17 academic year.” Also, the university has promised to discuss the program’s “long term sustainability” in the coming year.
SACKVILLE, NEW BRUNSWICK — I met my first “real feminists” in my first year at Mount Allison. I soon came to the conclusion that if two of the professors I admired most were feminists and I was not, maybe I was missing out on something important. I audited my first Women’s and Gender Studies (WGST) class in the summer after first year because I knew I would be unable to take this course at Mount Allison due to the limitations of my particular degree. By the end of the summer I not only realized that I had long held feminist values, but that I was proud of this aspect of my identity. I became comfortable presenting myself to the world as a “real feminist” too.
It was in my WGST course where I first learned why there is no such thing as reverse racism. Why asking women to take self-defence classes is not an appropriate response to pervasive rape culture. How hegemonic masculinity relates to the military industrial complex. How police do not make everyone feel safer. Afraid to show my ignorance in sociology classes back home, I found a safe space in my WGST class to ask questions about opinions I was embarrassed to hold. I continue to employ concepts I was introduced to then in my sociology classes today.
Last Monday, Mount Allison’s WGST Acting Director Dr Lisa Dawn Hamilton e-mailed minors registered in the program following a meeting with the Dean of Arts, Dr Hans vanderLeest. Dr Hamilton had been informed that there was no budget allocated to the program for next year, and that consequently, none of the four core WGST courses would be offered either. Since then, students and faculty have mobilized and expressed collective outrage about the decision.
An online petition has garnered 6800 supporters, the WGST Student Society organized a letter writing campaign, started the hashtag #WGSTcuts on social media, and protested a meeting of the Board of Regents with the participation of over 50 students. The program’s Steering Committee has developed a website dedicated to the cause, faculty and librarians of Mount Allison have published an open letter to the administration, letters of support have poured in from universities across Canada, and the story has been picked up by CBC, CTV,Huffington Post, The Coast, Buzzfeed, and the New Wark Times.
In response to the media coverage and community members’ vocal dissent, Dean vanderLeest has since conceded to funding two core WGST courses next year through two part-time stipends. The Director of Marketing and Communications, Robert Hiscock, and Dean Hans vanderLeest have issued statements and compiled a Frequently Asked Questions page in an attempt at damage control, insisting that the program cannot be cut without due process – which has not yet been undertaken – and that no budget has been set at present.
However, neither students nor faculty have been fooled. Both assert there is a hidden agenda that intends to starve the program of funding in order to drop its enrolment – which has tripled in the past two years. This would then provide the administration with “evidence” that could be used to justify the formal elimination of the program. Dr Hamilton has made it clear that two stipends will not suffice – neither making the program sustainable nor exposing WGST students to enough feminist theory to accurately represent a WGST minor.
This administrative move comes at a time when issues relating to gender, sex, and sexuality are increasingly coming to the fore. Neither the Dalhousie dentistry scandal nor Saint Mary’s University’s orientation rape chants have become any less concerning or faded from our memory.
Last year, CBC reported that, “Mount Allison University has the second highest rate of sexual assault reports among Canadian universities and colleges over a five-year period”. Though this may be indicative of students feeling empowered to report these cases, an anonymous Google form set up to collect students’ and faculty’s anonymous testimonies of sexual assault, harassment, misogyny, and gender or sexual identity-based discrimination on Mount Allison’s campus suggest otherwise.
Professors discuss experiences of “sexual harassment and homophobia coming from high-level administrators, often in public venues, in front of other colleagues and staff,” the campus bar is described as “a terrifying place to be a woman at Mount Allison,” more than one student reports institutionalized trans-phobia, and students assert they have been discouraged from pursuing recourse following cases of sexual assault.
It is clear that there is a very real and immediate need to offer WGST courses in order to help students understand these situations and their root causes. There is also an unmistakable connection between a campus that enables (and arguably at times engenders) such a culture, and the devaluation of the WGST program.
The institutionalization of sexism in higher education has been well documented. As a young woman who intends to make a career in academia, I am well aware that the odds are stacked against me. I am more likely than my male counterparts to find myself stuck in a vicious cycle of precarious contract positions, as well as to be perceived as less capable and intelligent than them when competing for the same positions.
Upper level administrators like Deans and University Presidents who make decisions about tenure, university policy, and university governance are statistically more likely to be male. Feminists use the term “patriarchy” to describe these systems that create, reinforce, and replicate male privilege and power. Mount Allison’s President, all three of our Deans(although one is currently being replaced by a female faculty member), our Vice-President,Finance and Administration, and fifteen of twenty-four Board of Regent members are male.
In other words, it is primarily men who have decided that we no longer have funding available for our WGST program. While our president receives an annual salary between $305 000 to 329 999 – comparatively, the Prime Minister of Canada earns $327 000 – we are told that the budget does not have room for our WGST program, despite its core courses having been taught by a full-time faculty member for 14 of the past 16 years the program has been in existence.
This, on top of the fact that there are currently 192 students enrolled in WGST classes, is suspicious.
Not only does a move like gutting – and then likely eliminating – a WGST program contribute to the replication of power relations both within and outside of a higher education setting, it also symbolizes the kyriarchical priorities of the university. It is clear that the university places little value on the voices, histories, experiences, criticisms, and challenges of women and other marginalized groups.
It is difficult to imagine a discipline in the Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field would ever be placed in a similar situation or be expected to run a program with half its courses paid for by two stipends.
Students are also currently advocating for an Indigenous Studies Minor at Mount Allison. If the university appears to have no qualms about cutting a well-established and burgeoning program, it is unlikely it will be open to new programs that teach alternative knowledge systems and are needed just as urgently as WGST.
Mount Allison University brands itself as a progressive, small liberal arts college. It was the first university in the British Empire to award a woman a university degree. Their decision to cut – or at least place in an extremely precarious position – the WGST program represents a major leap backwards in its progress and commitment to service, also calling into question their commitment to fostering social justice.
As a woman, when the university announces such a decision and then deliberately misdirects and miscommunicates to students about it, I hear that I am less valued than other members of our community. I hear that a predominantly male administration can undo the work of a woman with an unwavering vision in a single move just two months after her death.
I hear that having the tools to identify intersectional inequalities and inequities in society isn’t seen as necessary to our education. But thankfully I also hear a call to fight, and if the past week bears any indication, I see that many others have heard the same.
We are prepared to do whatever it will take to save our program, fight institutionalized sexism and patriarchy, and show the world that we have an arsenal full of lessons taught by programs like WGST ready to employ. On the first day of my WGST class three years ago, my professor had us listen to Ani DiFranco’s “Alla This.”
I leave you with the following lyrics from her song:
“I will look at everything around me/And I will vow to bear in mind/That all of this was just someone’s idea/It could just as well be mine”
Caroline Kovesi is a fourth year student at Mount Allison working towards an honours in sociology and minor in philosophy. She is a mental health advocate, and dedicates much time to organizing and participating in events and campaigns on campus that have a social-justice and anti-stigma focus. She also recently began a blog to explore ideas and experiences related to mental health and illness, accessibility, higher education, disability, feminism, and activism called “for the love of a bear.”