The Department Drive: Women’s Studies Program Status is Unclear

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marshillonline.

The State University of New York’s first Women’s Studies program was founded at the New Paltz campus in 1973. Forty-three years later, SUNY New Paltz’s Women Studies program has evolved into the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies, (WGSS), and yet with many efforts to become a department, it has remained a program.

Kathleen Dowley, coordinator of WGSS and associate professor of political science asked the $64,000 question: “Why isn’t Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies a department?”

“The answer that I received when we asked that [in 2012] was that we were an interdisciplinary program,” Dowley said. “It was the preference of the administration to keep interdisciplinary programs as programs not a department.”

WGSS branched out of the Women’s Movement in the early 1970s. Many institutions like SUNY New Paltz that wanted to teach Women’s Studies had faculty who weren’t trained in Women’s Studies nor had a program dedicated to the curriculum.

Associate English professor Heather Hewett explained how the WGSS curriculum was created.

“Faculty put together courses from existing faculty for students to study women,” Hewlett said. “They would take a member from English, History, Anthropology, History, and Sociology. There was a way to create opportunity for students to study women drawing from existing resources and disciplines.”

However, the administration feels if WGSS becomes it’s own department and not a program that WGSS would become less interdisciplinary and be focused with their own courses.

“I am unsure if I entirely believe all of that,” Dowley said.

When WGSS’ only full time member Amy Kesselman retired in 2012, Dowley and her faculty asked SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian for a replacement. Dowley was told that the WGSS could not have a replacement because of their program status.

“Amy had been an exception,” Dowley said. “They did not intend to give us a full-time line in Women’s Studies again. We could have a joint line instead sharing a faculty member from the History department.”

Students who majored and minored in WGSS were unhappy with the administration and campaigned a protest to make WGSS a department.

“They drafted a resolution in the Academic Affairs Committee calling administration to make WGSS into a department. That we had earned that status and the students wanted this and faculty supported this,” Dowley said.

The vote was passed in the Academic Affairs committee, through Senate, then on its way to the full vote of the faculty. The students participated the whole way and got permission to speak at faculty meetings and at the Senate to question Christian and to make a statement why it was important to them that WGSS be equaled to other departments.

Although the final vote 88-8 favored Women’s Studies, the resolution wasn’t binding.

“The administration wasn’t going to do anything about it,” Dowley said.

In the Summer of 2013, Dowley requested a meeting with the Interim Dean Stella Deen and Provost Phil Mauceri and was offered a compromise.

“We’re not prepared to make you a department at this point,” Dowley said. “He gave me the argument that he was interested in developing and strengthening interdisciplinary programs. He thought they were the future of the university and was interested in developing a center for interdisciplinary programs.”

He also promised Dowley that WGSS and other interdisciplinary programs were going to get the resources they needed and give her full-time department a full-time line. In doing so, WGSS has four joint hires and was able to hire their first full time member Jessica Pabon.

According to Hewett, students and the faculty have tried for decades to make WGSS a department. Although there have been obstacles, they have shifted. Hewett states that WGSS is already a department.

“We already function as a department without the resources of a department,” Hewlett said. “As of last year we have full time faculty member, Jessica Pabon who is trained and housed in WGSS. Everything the departments have to do, we have to do. We have a budget. We have to evaluate faculty members. We have to assess courses. We have staff meetings. We do everything a department does.”

Fourth-year graphic design major at SUNY New Paltz, Ryan Labita strongly feels WGSS should be recognized as a full department.

“It’s a part of history and social studies,” Labita said. It’s just as important as Asian studies or American history. It’s just another facet cause there’s so much material to cover and many classes.”

Fourth-year WGSS major Sam Lacovara is certain that if WGSS expanded to a department, the faculty would be able to extend their reach to students of different majors and give them the opportunity to learn about Women’s Studies.

Fourth-year WGSS major and Black Studies minor, Alen Quints believes if his major became a department, it would provide institution protection.

“Technically the administration of SUNY New Paltz could snap their fingers and get rid of the program because we don’t have that security,” Quints said. “I don’t think the administration would do that. But the fact they have the ability to do that is scary.”

Since then, Mauceri resigned and many of his plans did not pass.

Recently, Dr. Lorin Basden Arnold has been appointed as the new provost and Vice President of academic affairs. Dowley hopes to see WGSS as a department before she retires next year.