The academic program of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies has made progress in pursuit of achieving department status at the University. Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas Katsouleas recently approved a proposal to offer this academic designation to WGS. Some institutions have already departmentalized their gender studies programs, such as the University of California-Berkeley and Washington University in St. Louis; however, many peer institutions have not. This provides the University with a unique opportunity to be a leader in the legitimization of this academic discipline.
While the proposal requires further approvals before WGS officially becomes a department, there is strong support for departmentalization. A report recently published by University President Teresa Sullivan listed the proposed change as an initiative to “improve the University's distinctive culture” and ensure that our Grounds are a welcome place to learn, teach and research.
There is currently high demand for enrollment in WGS courses among University students, according to WGS Program Director Charlotte Patterson. Nearly all WGS courses are fully enrolled, while the number of College students who declare WGS majors or minors continues to climb. With over 1,000 students enrolling in at least one WGS course during the last academic year, allocating resources to support such enrollment is increasingly necessary. Additionally, over 1,000 students attended WGS-sponsored events last year ranging from guest speakers to film screenings. Greater funding — which accompanies department status — could allow WGS faculty to better support future events.
Other benefits include supporting a greater number of tenured professors. Academic freedom is important — we need professors who are able to speak freely on contentious issues without the threat that they will lose their positions. This is especially important within WGS, as the nature of the discipline touches many areas which may draw controversy. Offering more tenured positions to WGS faculty would attract more competitive professors and therefore improve the quality of research and course offerings at the University. Departmentalization would also allow WGS faculty to carry greater political clout in academic meetings at the University.
Departmentalizing WGS is a step in the right direction for an institution that did not allow women to enroll until 1970. Whether WGS deserves a place in academia at all has been debated even in the pages of The Cavalier Daily. Changing its status from that of a program to a department would legitimize the study for those who view it as less academically rigorous than other traditional liberal arts subjects — something that may also benefit other academic programs at the University. It would affirm the notion that WGS is not just an interdisciplinary study of literature, history, anthropology and other disciplines, but a subject worth studying in itself.