Women's Studies Faculty at the Intersection of Institutional Power and Feminist Values

By Burghardt, Deborah A.; Colbeck, Carol L. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Women's Studies Faculty at the Intersection of Institutional Power and Feminist Values


Burghardt, Deborah A., Colbeck, Carol L., Journal of Higher Education


Women's studies (WS) was built by pioneering scholars who dedicated themselves to claiming space in the curriculum for women's diverse experiences and societal contributions. They explored gender as one of several important and interdependent social and cultural aspects of identity, including race, class, age, ability, nationality, and sexual orientation. They practiced pedagogies that valued personal growth, reciprocity in relationships, and exchange of knowledge. The resulting "knowledge explosion" challenged disciplinary boundaries and critiqued masculine biases embedded in the academy. Even with shrinking funds for higher education, 300 hundred WS units opened during the 1970s, demonstrating the strong influence the women's movement had on the academy (Stark & Lattuca, 1997). This work continues today in over 700 colleges and universities across the country (National Women's Studies Association [NWSA], 1995). Thus, WS serves as an essential location for understanding institutional structures, curriculum, and faculty development (Garcia & Ratcliff, 1997; Klein & Newell, 1997; Simpson, 1989).

Despite 30 years in the academy, most WS and other interdisciplinary studies units (such as cultural, environmental, racial/ethnic, and sexuality studies) that cross disciplinary boundaries to foster integrative thinking remain in marginalized positions as programs rather than departments. Disciplinary departments hold the power associated with intellectual and administrative authority over curricular, hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. Most programs lack this power and therefore depend on departments to hire and promote faculty trained and willing to do interdisciplinary work. Interdisciplinary program curricula require multiple departmental approvals and offerings of cross-listed courses for stability. In addition, because departments typically have more resources than programs, they control opportunities for faculty professional development.

Furthermore, individual WS faculty members make scholarly decisions in the context of a patriarchal system. Power imbalances in colleges and universities favor males. For example, tenured male faculty members outnumber women, and on average men at the professor rank earn more than women do (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001, 2002b). Much of the curriculum is male-centered. Within this environment, those who already hold power are positioned to retain their influence over institutional and departmental rewards, resources, and decision-making. Nevertheless, there are increasing numbers of WS graduate programs across the country, and more talented interdisciplinary feminist scholars will be seeking opportunities to associate with WS and to teach WS courses. They are likely to expect the freedom to work within and beyond departmental boundaries, so retaining them in the academy may depend on flourishing WS programs.

Messer-Davidow (1991) described how the structural positioning of WS creates a paradox for WS faculty. They have their tenure home in disciplinary departments, yet critique potentially unjust departmental organization of knowledge and assignment of power and resources. In the same moment that WS scholars are commissioned to pursue feminist inquiry, they may be faced with the decision to constrain that pursuit in response to institutional and collegial priorities. Moreover, institutional norms and social and cultural identities create power and authority imbalances between faculty and students in their classrooms that must be negotiated (Ellsworth, 1989; hooks, 1994; Ropers-Huilman, 1998). To secure tenure and promotion, WS scholars may divert or postpone scholarly efforts that reflect feminist values to engage in work they believe will be less risky. In effect, while WS scholars value social change, they--rather than their institutions--are being transformed. Therefore, these scholars' decisions about how to teach, what to study, where to disseminate their work, and the nature of their service activities could place WS interdisciplinary and transformational ideals in jeopardy (Allen, 1997; Allen & Kitch, 1998; Goodstein, 1997; Goodstein & Burghardt, 1999; Scully, 1996). …

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