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Is Gender Studies The Man?
When an academic program is cut without evidence demonstrating that it violates a university’s truth-seeking mission, who’s the real activist?
The students who are beginning their fall semester at the New College of Florida this week find themselves at the epicenter of a battle over higher education in America. For months Governor Ron DeSantis has been working to remodel New College in a more conservative image, replacing several of the trustees with ideological allies. Now, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and one of the New College trustees named earlier this year, has taken aim at the gender studies area of concentration at the college, and this month, Rufo and his fellow trustees voted to abolish that program.
I am a retired professor who taught gender studies at two public universities, and have argued previously against college instructors engaging in partisan political activism in the classroom. Scholars who identify as activists (or activists who identify as scholars) only encourage people to question their motives and the unique intellectual value of scholarship. Faculty should be engaged in academic inquiry, not activism, in their classrooms. And to the extent that an instructor makes an occasional statement of opinion in an otherwise academic course—whether it’s about getting an abortion or, as one Hillsdale College professor advocates in an online course called “The American Left,” getting an AR-15—students are and should be free to take reasoned exception to the opinion expressed. But the occasional remark about AR-15s or abortions does not mean that instruction is indoctrination or that an entire academic program exists for political purposes, as Rufo suggests is the case with gender studies.
Rufo’s targeting of gender studies implies that we needn’t worry about any college instructor who uses their work as a political call to arms—just the ones who presumably promote men wearing mascara or women having abortions. This campaign against gender studies raises a larger set of questions about who has an ideological bias, whose scholar-activism is most unnerving, why some academic units get accused of lacking intellectual or viewpoint diversity while others do not, and who is really in the best position to correct any of these problems in higher education.
Would the Real Ideologue Please Stand Up?
Some gender studies scholars undoubtedly see Rufo and his allies as toxic, power-tripping, politically motivated actors who disregard the liberty of people engaged in a democratic struggle for self-definition. But for many conservative activists, it’s gender studies that’s The Man—the established authority who holds power in society through censorship and oppressive expectations of conformity. Rufo sees gender studies as a fake pseudoscience providing a protected platform for faculty peddling what he calls “gender ideology.” Funny, that is a term used by scholars of gender to describe the shifting cultural assumptions about men and women that serve as a lens through which we view history, behaviors and even our bodies.
For example, until 1920, women were denied the right to vote in our nation. The idea that women were unfit to vote was not based on nature or actual science. Rather, it was gender ideology—the established dogma about sexual difference. Same with keeping women out of higher education on the grounds that pursuing the brainwork of males poses a serious risk to female physical health. What explains why it used to be legal for men to rape their wives? Gender ideology. And by this definition, gender ideology still exists today. Can’t picture a man in a skirt? Gender ideology. When you were a kid, did you play with Barbie dolls whose proportions even your cosmetic surgeon can’t achieve and who said “math class is tough”? Yep, gender ideology. Ever hear anyone say that women’s bodies shut down pregnancies that result from “legitimate rape”? Ditto.
But Rufo uses the term “gender ideology” to mean something different—to describe what gender scholars would see as an analysis of gender, in which gender itself (including the controversies surrounding gender roles and identities) is the object of study. Rufo sees gender studies as a political agenda rather than as truth-seeking and falsehood-exposing academic inquiry the way Judith Butler describes it. The conflicting characterizations of gender studies leave regular citizens to sort out who’s the truth-seeking independent thinker and who’s the corrupting, toxic influence on higher education institutions.
Rufo says the entire field of gender studies fails to “contribute to the production of scholarly knowledge” and instead serves as a “taxpayer-funded sinecure for activists who despise the values of the public whom they are supposed to serve.” Try telling that to a gender studies student who wants to work as a nurse with pregnant women, or to a student who documents Appalachian women’s traditional food preparation and preservation practices. Or a student who plans to become a marriage counselor. Or the ones who pursue careers in family services’ organizations and domestic violence victims’ shelters. Neither students who enter such professions, nor teachers who help them study relevant research on interpersonal relationships, healthcare and domestic life in preparation for success in those areas, despise the values of the public.
While I don’t think gender studies scholars should be peddling activism in their professional work, that’s not to suggest that gender studies scholarship does not contribute to some positive social good. (One would hope the same is true for scholarship in nanotechnology, data science, digital media studies and any other field in which scholars from a variety of disciplines collaborate to address emerging topics and problems in innovative ways.) For example, a group of entrepreneurial students at North Carolina State University invented a nail polish that detects date-rape drugs when a painted fingernail is dipped into a drink. These students would not have come up with such an innovation had scholars working in the area of gender studies not uncovered the problem of sexual assailants drugging their victims. Mattel would not have created Architect Barbie were it not for the professors who, based on their knowledge of the male-dominated architecture profession, offered guidance to Mattel. Truckers Against Trafficking might not be as effective in their efforts to combat sex trafficking were it not for the scholarship on that topic. Even a parent who’s ever used the baby-changing station in a public restroom has engaged with an entrepreneurial innovation that resulted from knowledge of women’s and men’s shifting roles as parents and employees.
Academics vs. Politics
Reminding people that the study of gender issues is legitimate academic business conducted by scholars across a variety of disciplines on a campus is not to deny that some instructors, in this field or any number of others, can be and have been less than professional. Indeed, I have witnessed professors stray from critical analysis and into uncritical conformity, oversimplification or even enthusiastic evangelism. And surely a host of academic programs need to take a hard look at what they’ve been doing. If the program teaches students how to gain insight, through the application of scholarly methods, into patterns, connections, historical context or theoretical foundations, or develop the analytic skills to comprehend and evaluate academic research or creative work, it’s probably academic. If the field’s research helps tackle certain problems (such as memory loss, pests on crops, pandemics or workplace discrimination) or answer certain questions (for example, how does one clone an animal, how does religious background impact a parent’s response to their child coming out as gay, what makes elite athletes perform consistently, how does a particular artist depict ancestral bonds) using academic methods, it’s probably academic. Many questions in academia are controversial and even unorthodox, and they shouldn’t be off limits. But where activists politicize such questions, scholars “academicize” them.
Our colleges and universities must ensure that any academic program embraces the spirit of open inquiry. This is why universities have systems in place by which academic programs are held accountable by faculty—who can and should engage their go-to channels of peer review (of research, instructors, curricula) and the rigorous scrutiny of ideas—not by self-identified activists appointed by a governor. The academic integrity of a university must not be subject to the preferences of whoever holds political power at a given moment. My point, then, is less to defend gender studies per se than to defend the university from the undue influence of political actors.
Certainly, over the course of a university’s history some academic units get discontinued. But the process by which units are reviewed and the criteria for elimination must be transparent—perhaps a program is too costly to justify, or it does not help students get jobs or it fails to meet the institution’s academic standards or mission. If government appointees such as Rufo are going to cancel academic programs, they owe it to the public to explain where this is coming from, present their evidence in support of their initiative and explain their agenda. The burden ought to be on them to demonstrate that the academic program they’re targeting is not in fact engaged in academic inquiry but, instead, is pursuing a political project divorced from the university’s knowledge-seeking mission. Likewise, they should have to engage in a comprehensive review of all academic units, involving those units and external experts, and make their assessments based on objective criteria that are transparent to the public. (While they’re at it, they should review the many nonacademic programs that take taxpayer dollars, such as the new baseball program, to give a fair assessment of return on taxpayer funds.) This would not solve all our problems—clearly, people disagree over which professors and trustees want freedom and which want power.
Neither Rufo’s motion at the August trustees meeting nor his description of the New College board’s elimination of gender studies provided any evidence that gender studies was not academic or that eliminating this program of study would solve any broader problem of scholars pushing ideologies or otherwise failing to serve the public. We can and should criticize what’s bad at universities, constructively and with evidence. Until that happens, I won’t be supporting Rufo’s doomsaying doublespeak about gender ideology and activism or cheering on his practice of cancel culture. Whenever political, government, corporate, alumni or religious activists steer a college curriculum, the freedom of the faculty and students to pursue questions, and the knowledge-seeking mission of the university more generally, is compromised.