Gender Studies on the Chopping Block
This essay was originally published on March 25, 2022 by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
On February 25, Wyoming’s state senate passed a budget amendment to end funding for the University of Wyoming’s Gender and Women’s Studies program. State senator Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) was concerned that the program promoted “service and activism.” “We’re training activists” with state money, Sen. Steinmetz argued, adding that she lost sleep after studying the array of queer, feminist, and social justice theories emphasized in the program.
Steinmetz’s amendment specifically bars any “general funds, federal funds or other funds under its [the University of Wyoming’s] control” for the purpose of “gender studies courses, academic programs, co-curricular programs and extracurricular programs.”
The bill has, apparently, since been killed in a Wyoming House committee.
Yet the amendment still sparked a much-needed debate about the role of the legislature in higher education reform.
Some hold that every legislative look under the hood at the universities is a violation of academic freedom and the constitutional protection of free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), among many others, claimed that Steinmetz’s amendment amounts to a “curricular ban,” which, according to the Supreme Court is unconstitutional in higher education. “By not funding and thereby shutting down” courses and activities related to gender studies, FIRE argued in a press release, “the amendment functions as a curricular ban on that topic and would limit academic discussion of gender in any class.” Similarly, the Chronicle of Higher Education thinks it “dangerous ground” to target such programs for defunding.
On the contrary, Steinmetz’s amendment reflects a healthy, altogether necessary stage in state efforts to ensure that their universities serve the public good and advance the cause of knowledge.
The state legislature is well within its powers to set academic priorities. Indeed, that is its duty. Wyoming statute holds that the legislature “shall appropriate monies” and “specify the purposes for which the monies are intended or may be used.” Such a power would also include the power to also say what monies may not be used for. Legislatures can undertake reform of universities as a whole, when universities are promoting aggressive ideologies deeply harmful to society, as I have argued previously. It would be insane to think that a legislature must fund universities or programs contrary to our nation’s principles, such as funding or promoting a university that advocates for the spread of communism or fascism.
As part of this general duty, legislatures can and should determine whether some academic disciplines are so inherently partisan, ideological and unprofessional that they do not deserve public support and do not belong on the modern university. Again, Wyoming law seems to imagine just such a scenario. The University of Wyoming is to “provide an efficient means” of imparting “a liberal education, together with a thorough knowledge of the various branches connected with the scientific, industrial and professional pursuits.” A liberal education points precisely away from activism toward an understanding of the deepest questions of human existence, arrived at through careful study of the best works of literature and philosophy. The legislature should make judgments about whether courses of study actually provide that liberal education or actually provide “thorough knowledge” in branches connected to worthy pursuits. The legislature can best enforce its statutory purposes through the mechanism of funding and defunding.
Legislatures should ask two questions: are disciplines engaged in scientific inquiry? And are disciplines promoting activism or serving the liberal arts? Once they pose these questions, they are duty-bound to cease funding unprofessional, ideological pseudo-disciplines. Universities should be required to post all syllabi online and faculty should have to keep an updated copy of their curriculum vita online to assist legislatures in their efforts to scrutinize corrupt disciplines.
Disciplines that do not generate falsifiable hypotheses are not defensible as scientific enterprises. It would not be too much work for select committees themselves to discover whether departments can be justified in these terms. Alternatively, department chairs and academic deans could be hauled before such select committees and asked pointed questions about the scientific status of their disciplines. Certainly, astronomy would be just fine on this score, but astrology would not.
Women’s study programs, however, make no claims to scientific status. They are instead part of the humanities. Such programs always claim to be part of a liberal education. But these claims are mostly bogus. Generally, disciplines that have integrated contestable ideological tenets into their professional standards are especially ripe for defunding.
Few “disciplines” more thoroughly equate leftist political standards into professional standards than gender studies or women’s studies programs. Daphne Patai and Noretta Kortge document the devolution of women’s studies into a leftist ideological monoculture in Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies (1994). The profession has only become more radical and ideological as reports from 2005 and 2014 (among others) show.
An activist core has always animated women’s studies programs. The constitution of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) explicitly endorses an activist understanding of knowledge: “Women’s studies. . . is equipping women to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression. . . .[and is] a force which furthers the realization of feminist aims.” Patai and Kortge report on the general state of women’s studies, which reveals shocking instances of “unprofessional behavior and subversion of normal academic standards and procedures—all carried on the name of feminism.” The peer review processes are corrupted when “scholarship” must comport with ideological demands.
The core pedagogical documents of the field, The Courage to Question and Students at the Center: Feminist Assessment, recommend the need for ideological purity: women’s studies programs must use feminist assessment methods, and must thereby silence rational objections. The field itself requires the destruction of rational discourse, and demands mindless adherence. So too with the field’s core evaluation methods: all publications, according to Students at the Center, “should be compatible with feminist activist beliefs” with the aims of “emancipatory pedagogy” (p. 35). These are the core techniques of the field. The University of Wyoming Gender and Women’s Studies program seems, by every measure, to adhere exactly to this ideological line.
Feminist research and teaching can and certainly should bring their analytical tools to bear in an attempt to understand the world. But women’s studies programs generally do much more than that. They reflect a dogmatic ideological stance and then aggressively proselytize for that point of view and support political activism. This is exactly Steinmetz’s point.
Wyoming’s Steinmetz and her senate colleagues have taken a step toward purging universities of unprofessional disciplines that undermine the common good without advancing the cause of knowledge. They have helpfully moved the Overton window on what it is acceptable for legislatures to do in higher education reform. Regrettably, other disciplines such as sociology, social work, and even literature are on the same trajectory as such “studies” programs. Here’s hoping the women studies program in Wyoming will not be the last scrutinized by awakening state legislators.