Women's studies non-negotiable

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Despite vocal opposition, a popular petition and a Facebook group to boot, the University of Guelph has officially eliminated their women’s studies program. Citing massive budget cuts as the reason, the decision was approved by the school’s Senate and Board of Undergraduate Studies and made final this past Monday.

However, the end of Guelph’s women’s studies program was announced just a few days before Macleans released a list of the highest salaries at Ontario universities, in which Guelph’s president ranked in the top five. Apparently, Guelph can afford to fork out close to $450,000 to one man but has to sacrifice the entire women’s studies program to save a projected $100,000, just over one fifth of the aforementioned salary.

This decision is disappointing at best. While encouraging headway has been made to include women’s studies in the Ontario curriculum at the high school level, Guelph’s careless decision to cut the program is reflective of a larger problem the school’s weak justifications did not consider.

Serge Desmarais, associate vice-president academic at the University of Guelph said they were cutting programs based on low enrollment. Over the past three years at Guelph, fewer than 25 students have majored in the women’s studies program. However, enrollment in a program such as woman’s studies requires consideration beyond the numbers.

First, women’s studies is a relatively new program. It may not boast the same popularity of mainstream programs such as biology, sociology or English but it is certainly no less valuable. Putting an end to such a program, which has enjoyed successful growth and impressive momentum since its inception, is counterproductive. But there is another reason why the program may be at a disadvantage.

It is not uncommon for women’s studies to be stigmatized. Often called a bird course or looked upon as a joke, admitting to pursuing a degree in women’s studies is not an easy sell. Although I had been confident I was meant to be a women’s studies student since my first day in women’s studies 020, it took me until the end of my third year to officially make it my major.

This was, in large part, due to the constant questioning as to whether it was a useful degree and/or what I could do with it besides burn my bra. Such negative feedback certainly does not encourage women’s studies as a degree; instead, it creates difficult attitudinal barriers both women’s studies students and the program as a whole must overcome on a regular basis.

While women’s studies is not the only program on the chopping block at Guelph, other programs are not subject to these same difficulties with enrollment and respect. Obviously, the University of Guelph failed to consider this.

The university has assured students that the courses associated with the women’s studies degree will continue to be offered. However, students can only take so many classes as electives and if they are not contributing to a degree, they are essentially futile.

All universities in Canada are pinching pennies with massive cutbacks. Western has called for budget cuts across the board; thankfully, there has not been talk of eliminating entire programs the way Guelph has. But Guelph’s decision has set a dangerous precedent as we continue on through an economic recession. I fear that as schools are increasingly faced with financial woes, more programs will be cut and women’s studies will be the first to go.

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