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The Powerful Secret College Women's Centers Can Teach Us that Might Save Higher Education

· Higher Education

Synopsis: When we think about the future of higher education, college women’s and gender centers may not be the first places that come to mind, but college women’s and gender centers have a powerful secret to teach educators about pushing back against the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism in higher education. College educators who wish to resist the deterioration of educational values during this time of uncertainty could do well to follow the lead of campus women’s and gender centers by clarifying why they do what they do and then proceeding to relentlessly pursue that purpose. In this essay, I share the powerful secret that college women's and gender centers can teach us that might save higher education. Additionally, I share insights from Jane Goettsch, Dr. Susan Marine, and Ashley Brown regarding their experience and expertise related to campus women's and gender centers. (20 min read, 7 min skim)

Many educators know what they do. For example, instructors know that they teach, program coordinators know that they organize educational initiatives, and advisors know that they provide guidance for student success. Some of these folks also have a deeper understanding of how they do what they do. Through training, professional development, and years of experience, some educators have developed a deeper knowledge of the inner workings of how to hone their craft.

Due to the current fear of scarcity, competition, and surveillance in higher education, however, some educators may be losing sight of the why that drives what they do and how they do it.

College women’s and gender centers have a powerful secret to teach educators about pushing back against the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism in higher education by staying grounded in the greater why of what they do and how they do it.

"College women’s and gender centers have a powerful secret to teach educators about pushing back against the dehumanizing effects of neoliberalism in higher education by staying grounded in the greater why of what they do & how they do it."

Are Women's Centers Still Relevant?

When we think about the future of higher education, college women’s and gender centers may not be the first places that come to mind. They are usually small offices with a handful of professional staff and even fewer resources (Boyd, Cavicchia, Lonnquist, Morrow, Robbins, Seasholes, & Wies, 2009; Brooks, 1988; Kasper, 2004). Furthermore, women are no longer the numerical minority among college goers (Goettsch, Linden, Vanzant, & Waugh, 2019; Touchton, Musil, & Campbell, 2008), and in an era of the cash-strapped university, some administrators are beginning to question whether or not women’s centers are even necessary on college campuses anymore (Goettsch et al., 2019).

Due to declining student enrollment and shrinking budgets, many colleges and universities have shifted their priorities to focus primarily on maintaining functional areas that can either generate revenue or help retain students until graduation. As a result, many student support services within the university are being forced to adapt and evolve in order to survive. From using student data and analytics to evaluating the return on investment and key performance indicators for student engagement, creative strategies for doing more with less in student affairs abound. While it is always a good idea to be intentional and intelligent about how money is spent, an overemphasis on fiscal management in higher education may be resulting in a loss of educational purpose.

"While it is always a good idea to be intentional and intelligent about how money is spent, an overemphasis on fiscal management in higher education may be resulting in a loss of educational purpose."

The inspired educators who work at college women’s and gender centers are among the few in higher education who consistently think, act, and lead with a focus on their mission for gender equity. Amidst the turbulent storm of anxiety and stress in higher education, those who work at campus women’s and gender centers remain steadfast in supporting students, advocating for marginalized populations, and educating campus communities because they are driven by a greater purpose, namely to be spaces on campus for feminist activism, education, and empowerment (Brooks, 1988; Kunkel, 1994; Marine, Helfrich, & Randhawa, 2017). Of course, there are countless staff and faculty outside of women’s centers who are motivated by a greater educational mission as well, but the alarming concerns facing most colleges and universities today seem to be driving many to think primarily about what they are doing to remain financially sustainable.

Grounded in a Common Purpose

While campus women’s and gender centers take many different forms, most share a common set of commitments. In 2010, a group of college women’s center leaders collaborated to write a shared philosophy statement that describes the collective vision:

“Women’s centers reflect the unique needs of their institutions and communities, yet share a commitment to historically underserved individuals and groups. Additionally, women’s centers play a leadership role in understanding the changing workplace and preparing members of the university community to engage successfully with an increasingly complex world. Women’s centers are integral to transforming institutions into inclusive environments; through community-building, advocacy, education, support, and research, they encourage the full participation and success of women (Vlasnik, 2010, p. 5).”

The clarity and consistent striving toward this collective purpose is what has enabled college women’s and gender centers to remain grounded as an important feature of higher education, despite consistently being underfunded, undervalued, and underappreciated (Boyd et al., 2009; Brooks, 1988; Kasper, 2004). College educators who wish to resist the deterioration of educational values during this time of economic, political, and social uncertainty could do well to follow the lead of campus women’s and gender centers by clarifying why they do what they do and then proceeding to relentlessly pursue that purpose, just as college women’s centers have always done.

"College educators who wish to resist the deterioration of educational values during this time of economic, political, and social uncertainty could do well to follow the lead of campus women’s and gender centers by clarifying why they do what they do and then proceeding to relentlessly pursue that purpose, just as college women’s centers have always done."

Indeed, those leading campus women’s centers have always been driven by a shared vision. Growing out of the feminist movement, the first campus women’s centers were founded in the 1960’s with the purpose of addressing gender inequities and discrimination in higher education. College women’s centers flourished throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, alongside the expansion of women’s and gender studies academic programs (Bethman, Cottledge, & Bickford, 2019). There are now over 500 college women’s centers across the country (Marine et al., 2017). And though the what and how of their work has changed over the years, the why behind the work of campus women’s centers has remained incredibly consistent.

Pockets of Continued Disparity

To learn more about how women’s and gender centers can serve as an example of effective resistance against the rise of neoliberalism in higher education, I spoke with Dr. Susan Marine, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Higher Education at Merrimack College. “I try to stay aware about what women’s centers are doing, how they are doing it, and how they’re changing,” noted Marine. She has a well-established professional career working at college women’s centers, including serving as the founding Director of the Harvard Women’s Center. Marine has also published several peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters about college women’s centers, “There is an ongoing issue where some people think there’s no sexism in the world anymore. One of the things I’m having to think about now is why women’s centers still matter, and to help amplify that the work they do is essential.”

Dr. Susan Marine, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Higher Education at Merrimack College

Dr. Susan Marine, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Higher Education at Merrimack College

I also had the opportunity to talk with Jane Goettsch, the Director of Women*s Initiatives at Miami University and author of numerous publications about college women’s centers. “College women’s centers have continuing relevance,” shared Goettsch. She has worked with and at Miami*s Women’s Center in various leadership roles for 25 years and was recognized for her professional accomplishments with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Women’s Studies Association’s Women’s Center Committee. “The primary thing is that we cannot equate numerical majority with equal access. There are still pockets of continued disparity in access and opportunities that women experience when they come to campus.”

Jane Goettsch, the Director of Women*s Initiatives at Miami University

Jane Goettsch, the Director of Women*s Initiatives at Miami University

“The primary thing is that we cannot equate numerical majority with equal access. There are still pockets of continued disparity in access and opportunities that women experience when they come to campus.” - Jane Goettsch

Students who identify as women continue to experience significant challenges, barriers, and harm while in college (Bickford, 2019). Reports of sexual harassment and assault, chilly campus climates, and the underrepresentation of women in certain professional fields stand out among the many disparities experienced by college students with marginalized gender identities Goettsch, Linden, Vanzant, & Waugh, 2019; Kupo & Castellon, 2018; Lonnquist & Reesor, 1987). Research shows that women enter college with lower levels of academic self-confidence, higher levels of stress, and lower ratings of physical and emotional health compared to men (Sax & Harper, 2005). In a recent book, titled University and College Women’s and Gender Equity Centers: The Changing Landscape (2019), editors Bethman, Cottledge, & Bickford examine the past, present, and future of college Women’s centers. Authors throughout the text reiterate the fact that college women’s and gender centers continue to play an important role in supporting students, building their fortitude, and educating campus communities about gender equity.

Ashley Brown is a Doctoral Candidate in the Higher Ed. PhD program at Loyola University in Chicago.

To learn about the most foundational research related to college women’s and gender centers, I spoke with Ashley Brown, who is a Doctoral Candidate in the Higher Education PhD program at Loyola University in Chicago studying campus women’s and gender centers. “Embedded in the work of women’s centers is a feminist-oriented mission,” she noted. Brown has spent a significant portion of her professional career developing college masculinities programming, and her dissertation research will examine masculinity-centered programs in college and university women’s centers. “Based on the research that I’ve seen, the professionals who work in women’s centers really prioritize their mission for advancing gender equity. It drives how they understand and negotiate the work as it continues to expand and shift.”

"Embedded in the work of women's centers is a feminist-oriented mission." - Ashley Brown

Engaging Men in Campus Women's Centers

Working with college men is just one example of how women’s and gender centers have adapted to the changing dynamics of higher education, while staying true to the enduring mission of gender equity. Although college women’s and gender centers have historically focused their efforts on advocating for women and educating others about issues that impact women, many women’s and gender centers have expanded their work to take on the task of engaging college men. From bystander intervention programs and sexual assault prevention efforts to men’s gender identity workshops and dialogue groups, many campus women’s and gender centers across the country are creating programs to involve men in their feminist efforts.

While this expansion has resulted in more involvement from men, it can also take away valuable resources and time that would otherwise be used to support women and other marginalized students. “Women’s centers absolutely need to be partners in masculinities work,” shared Goettsch. “One of the values of expanding the focus of gender is that it’s easier to talk about the experiences of men, especially men of Color. But I don’t know if women’s centers need to take on the primary responsibility for men’s work.”

Dr. Susan Marine agreed about the role of masculinities work in women’s centers by saying, “Women’s centers often feel compelled to do programming for men, especially cis-gender men. While there is value in this type of programming, it can dilute the larger picture of supporting women on campus. I’m glad that women’s centers do men’s programming, but it should never be the focus.”

"I'm glad that women's centers do men's programming, but it should never be the focus." - Dr. Susan Marine

Despite the risks associated with engaging college men in the work of women’s and gender centers, it also allows these units to embrace a vital aspect of the overall commitment to serve marginalized groups. College men are not a monolithic group and approaching masculinity/ies from an intersectional perspective enables those who work in women’s and gender centers to continue to pursue their mission by supporting and advocating for men of Color, Queer men, and Transgender men, to name a few (Kupo & Castellon, 2018).

Women's Centers and Neoliberalism

Again, the adherence to a greater mission is the underlying factor in how college women’s center professionals think about their work. This has been the case from the very beginning. Focusing on gender equity is the primary reason why women’s centers endure on college campuses, despite being historically underfunded. “A big theme in the research is the limited resources that women’s centers have received throughout their history,” shared Brown. “College women’s center staff have to constantly navigate doing more with less. In many cases, women’s centers experience organizational pressures that try to depoliticize their feminist-oriented mission. This forces them to adapt and make sure their mission stays central to their work.”

“College women’s center staff have to constantly navigate doing more with less. In many cases, women’s centers experience organizational pressures that try to depoliticize their feminist-oriented mission. This forces them to adapt and make sure their mission stays central to their work.” - Ashley Brown

Current political, economic, and social dynamics have increased doubt and suspicion about the work of college women’s and gender centers (Goettsch et al., 2019). In some cases campus administrators have attempted to alter the mission statement of campus women’s centers, and in other cases, leadership has pressured staff to eliminate programming and services related to women’s reproductive rights (Kleinman & Ezzell, 2012; Parker & Freedman, 1999). These factors have resulted in college women’s and gender centers receiving even less funding, making it difficult to sustain the services and staffing necessary (Boyd et al., 2009; Brooks, 1988; Kasper, 2004).

“Neoliberalism is a huge driver of what’s happening with women’s centers on college campuses,” said Dr. Marine. Those who work at women’s and gender centers are being asked to divert their time and attention away from supporting students to focus on survival, competing for resources, retaining staff, and justifying their work through assessment (Brooks, 1988; Girard et al., 1980; Marine, 2017; Vera & Burgos-Sasscer, 1998).

Finding Opportunities in Restructuring

Despite these pressures, however, college women’s and gender centers remain grounded in their overarching commitment to feminist activism, education, and empowerment (Marine, Helfrich, & Randhawa, 2017). For example, many women’s and gender centers are being moved within the organizational structure of the university in order to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Often these units are being renamed and merged with other identity-based support services, such as LGBTQ+ offices or multicultural affairs, resulting in units that serve a broad spectrum of students under one roof. “The thinking is that you don’t need to separate pots of money,” noted Goettsch. “But, when smaller units are merged into larger ones, those smaller ones can lose autonomy, decision-making, and access to key decision-makers.”

Rather than viewing these forced mergers as detracting from the overall mission however, many who work at college women’s and gender centers are embracing these new campus alliances and the possibilities they hold to continue pursuing a feminist mission. “The opportunity is that we can work better and more deeply together. We can better serve students. It doesn’t make sense to ask students to choose which identities are most important to them,” shared Goettsch.

"Rather than viewing these forced mergers as detracting from the overall mission however, many who work at college women’s and gender centers are embracing these new campus alliances and the possibilities they hold to continue pursuing a feminist mission."

Innovating with an Intersectional Lens

Many women’s and gender centers are choosing to frame the forced neoliberal restructuring as a chance to embrace the philosophy of intersectionality. Originally developed by legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), intersectionality theory describes the unique ways that systems of oppression work together to marginalize Black women. In the context of college women’s and gender centers merging with other units, intersectionality theory provides an incredibly powerful framework to focus on serving students who experience marginalization due to multiple systems of oppression (Davie, 2002; Goettsch et al., 2019; Vera & Burgos-Sasscer, 1998). “I’ve noticed that women’s centers are doing more intersectional programming as a trend, due to merging with other identity centers,” noted Brown. “This is how they are enacting their feminist mission through these mergers. Women’s centers are staying grounded in equity.”

“I’ve noticed that women’s centers are doing more intersectional programming as a trend, due to merging with other identity centers. This is how they are enacting their feminist mission through these mergers. Women’s centers are staying grounded in equity.” - Ashley Brown

Many believe that standalone college women’s centers of the past have historically struggled to support women with multiple marginalized identities, including women of Color, queer women, low-income women, and women with disabilities (Marine et al., 2017; Nare, 2019). In fact, early college women’s centers expressed fear of including women with multiple marginalized identities because doing so might take away from the goal of gender equity (Bonebright, Cottledge, & Lonnquist, 2012). As a result, many women with multiple marginalized identities have historically felt alienated by college women’s centers, fairly seeing them as exclusive spaces for White, straight, cisgender women (Dilapi & Gay, 2002).

“We talk a lot about the various commitments we have around practicing intersectionality,” noted Dr. Marine. “The work of women’s centers needs to be thought about differently. Many women’s center directors tend to be White cisgender women. We are missing a lot of voices. How are we creating spaces that truly are for everyone?” Adopting an intersectional perspective is a powerful example of how college women’s centers are navigating organizational restructuring brought on by neoliberalism, while also propelling them forward in the pursuit of their mission to support and empower historically underserved populations.

“The work of women’s centers needs to be thought about differently. Many women’s center directors tend to be White cisgender women. We are missing a lot of voices. How are we creating spaces that truly are for everyone?” - Dr. Susan Marine

Forward-Thinking Positions

As cash-strapped colleges and universities struggle with financial constraints, college women’s and gender centers will continue to change and evolve. “No one can predict the future,” shared Goettsch. “Given the pressing and likely not short-term trends that colleges and universities are facing, I don’t know how much longer women’s centers are going to exist in the way they do now. I can foresee more coupling and integration.”

Despite these changes, however, college women’s and gender centers will remain grounded in their mission to advance gender equity and social justice, as they always have. No matter what unfolds in higher education, the pursuit of this central purpose will allow women’s and gender centers to adapt, while always looking ahead to what’s next. “There is a lot changing in the field,” concluded Goettsch. “We’re having to reframe and rethink about our work, but we can always be in forward-thinking positions.”

"There is a lot changing in the field. We're having to reframe and rethink about our work, but we can always be in forward-thinking positions." - Jane Goettsch

If colleges and universities are going to survive the current neoliberal assault on higher education and continue to support college student development into the future, educators must be willing to adjust while staying resolved to the greater purpose of their work. Those responsible for leading units within the university should follow the example that has been set by college women’s and gender centers who continue to lead the way into the future by following the why that drives what they do and how they do it.

Discussion

  • What are other examples of college educators following a greater mission?
  • How have you seen neoliberalism impacting college campuses?
  • What are other ways to push back against the changes impacting higher education?
Please leave a comment and share your thoughts below. Also, subscribe to the quarterly digest of Higher Education meditations to get a recap of the trends shaping higher education and student affairs today.

References

Bethman, B., Cottledge, A., & Bickford, D. M. (2019). University and college women’s and gender equity centers: The changing landscape. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bickford, D. M. (2019). Introduction. In B. Bethman, A. Cottledge, & D. M. Bickford (Eds.), University and college women’s and gender equity centers: The changing landscape (pp. 1-7). New York, NY: Routledge.

Boyd, C., Cavicchia, J., Lonnquist, P., Morrow, R., Robbins, C., Seasholes, C., & Wies, J. (2009). The role of women student programs and services: CAS standards contextual statement. In L. A. Deann (Ed.), CAS professional standards for higher education (7th Ed.) (pp. 390-392). Washington, DC: Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.

Bonebright, D. A., Cottledge, A. D., & Lonnquist, P. (2012). Developing women leaders on Campus: A human resources-women’s center partnership at the University of Minnesota. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 14(1), 79-95.

Brooks, K. H. (1988). The women’s center: The new dean of women? Initiatives, 51(2/3), 17-21.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8), 139-167.

Davie, S. L. (2002). How women’s centers shape our journey: Transformation, education, Leadership. In S. L. Davie (Ed.), University and college women’s centers: A journey toward equity (pp. 19-46). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Dilapi, E. M., & Gay, G. M. (2002). Women’s centers responding to racism. In S. L. Davie (Ed.), University and college women’s centers: A journey toward equity (pp. 203-226). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Goettsch, J., Linden, A., Vanzant, C., & Waugh, P. (2019a). Positioning campus women’s and Gender equity centers for success: Structural issues and trends. In B. Bethman, A. Cottledge, & D. M. Bickford (Eds.), University and college women’s and gender equity centers: The changing landscape (pp. 8-16). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lonnquist, M. P., & Reesor, L. M. (1987). The Margaret Sloss Women’s Center at Iowa State University: A model. NASPA Journal, 25(2), 137-140.

Kasper, B. (2004). Campus-based women’s centers: A review of problems and practices. Affilia, 19(2), 185-198.

Kleinman, S., & Ezzell, M. B. (2012). Opposing ‘both sides’: Rhetoric, reproductive rights, and control of a campus women’s center. Women’s Studies International Forum, 35(6), 403-414.

Kunkel, C. A. (1994). Women’s needs on campus: How universities meet them. Initiatives, 56(2), 15-28.

Kupo, V. L., & Castellon, J. (2018). Integrating a gender equity lens: Shifting and broadening the focus of women’s centers on college campuses. New Directions for Student Services, no. 164, 19-27.

Marine, S. B., Helfrich, G., & Randhawa, L. (2017). Gender-inclusive practices in campus women’s and gender centers: Benefits, challenges, and future prospects. NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, 10(1), 45-63.

Nare, J. (2019). Late to the game: The politics of opening a women’s center in 2015. In B. Bethman, A., Cotttledge, & D. M. Bickford (Eds.), University and college women’s and gender equity centers: The changing landscape (pp. 44-53). New York, NY: Routledge.

Parker, J., & Freedman, J. (1999). Women’s centers/women’s studies programs: Collaborating for feminist activism. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 27(3/4), 114-121.

Sax, L. J. & Harper, C. E. (2005). Origins of the gender gap: Pre-college and college influences on differences between men and women. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Institutional Research. San Diego, CA.

Touchton, J. G., Musil, C. M., & Campbell, K. P. (2008). A measure of equity: Women’s progress in higher education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Vera, M. H., & Burgos-Sasscer, R. (1998). Community college women’s centers: A question of survival (Report No. 442-505). U.S. Department of Education.

Vlasnik, A. L. (2011). Historical constructs of gender and work: Informing access and equity in U. S. higher education. In J. L. Martin (Ed.), Women as leaders in education: Succeeding higher education (pp. 23-44). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

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