Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Using Women's Studies to Change the University for All Women: Report from University of Wisconsin-Superior

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Using Women's Studies to Change the University for All Women: Report from University of Wisconsin-Superior

Article excerpt

Women's studies has grown out of the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s. As we have moved into the academy, our activism and unwillingness to accept the status quo has been a source of contention, both inside and outside of women's studies. We face the question, Can we join the academy, present ourselves as a legitimate scholarly discipline, and simultaneously work to change it? From my perspective, being part of women's studies means that we must engage in teaching and scholarship and in activism for change. Indeed, our activism informs the discipline-its academic, research, and pedagogical components-keeping it vibrant and relevant.


Within this framework of activism linked with academic legitimacy, I present the specific case of women's studies at the University of Wisconsin (UW) -Superior and our development of an activist format for addressing women's concerns within the university. First, to understand our situation, one needs to appreciate that UW-Superior is part of the University of Wisconsin System, which encompasses thirteen comprehensive universities, thirteen two-year colleges, and a statewide extension program that also has a chancellor and the usual entourage. The system is governed by the regents and the UW System president and staff, who are based in Madison. In 1989, the regents approved the development of a system-wide Women's Studies Consortium Office with a part-time director to support women's studies programs across all the campuses. The consortium sponsors annual conferences, an extensive library, outreach programs, and regular meetings of the women's studies coordinators from all of the programs. These meetings allow for women's studies faculty and staff to get together, compare notes, provide support and consultation, and, when needed, take action together. Such action took place in the 1998-99 academic year.

Despite ten years of accomplishments, members of the consortium sensed that the momentum behind improving conditions for women across the university had stalled. Data gathered over several months led us to the following analysis. Faculty women, while increasing in number, were not making expected inroads into leadership circles. Academic staff women (adjunct instructors and administrative personnel) were carrying increasingly heavy teaching loads under annual contracts rather than moving up into tenure-track positions or were pooled at the lower end of the positions and pay scale. Women students cited ongoing problems with unequal services and programs, a lack of female role models on campus and in the curriculum, and unsafe and hostile climates. Classified staff women (unionized employees) felt unrecognized and unheard. In summary, while the university campuses had made space for more women and for women's studies, the policies, procedures, and values that govern university campuses continued to reflect the established ways.

Consortium members moved directly to asking, How can we move ahead? How can we warm up the chilly climate for women at all levels? With the leadership of Jackie Ross, then Women's Studies Consortium director, we worked out a plan for meeting with the president of the UW System, Katherine Lyall, in the spring of 1998. We also joined forces with the United Council of UW Students' Women's Issues Group and together requested from the president an in-depth study on the status of women (students, classified, academic staff, and faculty).

President Lyall convened a system-wide Committee on the Status of Women and charged it with identifying existing challenges to women across the system and devising a number of practical and achievable recommendations that would improve current conditions. A year and a half later, the committee concluded that

substantial progress has been made, but that very significant needs and concerns persist. Moreover, it appears that many of the most important problems will not be susceptible to piecemeal solutions, but will only be solved when the UW System and each of its institutions have in place a comprehensive system for addressing women's concerns and pursuing the goal of equity for women in the University. …

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