Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Closure of the Women's Research Institute at Brigham Young University

Normally this is a feel-good blog. I write about my projects at home and in my garden. You hear about my kids. However, I feel compelled to write a post that is different. There are times when you hear news that forces you into some type of action because you are so dismayed by what you hear that you have to try to make a difference. This is one of those times.

A few days ago (on the 29th of October 2009), Brigham Young University (BYU) gave a very discrete statement. It wasn't widely spoken about or really announced. You can find the announcement hidden away on the BYU website news page, next to links to stories like Cleanliness IS next to godliness:new research shows clean smells unconsciously promote moral behaviour. The story I'm interested in is titled BYU reorganized women's study program. When you read the story, you realize that the title is misleading. BYU is not just reorganizing a program. In fact, they are discontinuing the Women's Research Institute.

The director of the program, Dr Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, is being moved to the psychology faculty. It gets worse. The women's studies minor, instead of being under the jurisdiction of the Women's Research Institute, is being allotted to the College of Home, Family, and Social Sciences. The implications of this move are seriously disturbing. As the Women's Research Institute, women's studies has it's rightful place as a serious academic area that researches the special issues pertaining to women, including the role of women in history, current issues specifically related to women, etc. This approach respects and validates the role of women both in the world now and in history, by showing that they are worthy of serious research, and by viewing them as part of the larger world as they contribute to and are affected by larger environmental, social, political, religious, and other issues.

If women's studies becomes part of the College of Home, Family, and Social Sciences--as it will in January 2010--BYU is implying that the study of women is not a serious independent pursuit and that women's studies and research is an inferior area. Within the same college as home and family, women' studies will be relegated to the position that it had before the feminist movement, and we will be back in the suffragette type position of being forced to fight for the right to be viewed outside of our familial roles. It is a subtle statement that the correct position of women is in the home and family, and it automatically creates a dichotomy seperating women in the home and family from women in the world and workplace. It implies that women's studies is not necessary as an independent study because it is included in home and family studies. In short, in one fell swoop BYU has completely negated everything that the Women's Research Institute faculty and students have worked so hard to establish since it was founded in the 1970s.

What is truly infuriating about this decision is the lack of communication associated with it. I understand that sometimes programs will be changed and reorganized, or even cut out altogether. However, this has been done in a secret way, as though it was either something that they wanted to hide, or something that wasn't important enough to bother mentioning. (To view the news release, click here.) BYU has not communicated with students or staff, and so there are lecturers left unsure whether they will still have their job or not, or still be teaching the same courses or not, or whether conferences that they were scheduled to speak at will still occur. There are students unsure of whether their funding, which came from the WRI, will continute past January. There are students unsure about whether they can continute their studies as they have planned. And they are not getting any answers.

There are a lot of good things that I could say about BYU. For example, they have a mind-blowingly amazing library and special collection. They offer an excellent education at low prices. Yet this decision, to me, undermines their academic credibility as well as limiting the freedom of ideas and respect that is necessary for excellent scholarship. I don't think that BYU has realized yet the ramifications of this decision.

I don't know if there's anything that we can do to save the Women's Research Institute. I hope that if enough people are concerned, they will reconsider, or at least discuss their reasoning behind the decision and their plans for how to move forward with women's studies. There is a Facebook group devoted to trying to save the WRI.

Here are some thoughts by other people on the dissolution of the Women's Research Institute:
Deseret News
Weightier Matters of the Law
The Universe (BYU's newspaper)
Feminist Mormon Housewives


  1. This is disturbing. Not entirely surprising, but very disturbing!


    i am calling you in the morning.

  3. I posted a more official type version of this here: