02 November 2009

Demise of the BYU Women's Research Institute

On October 29, 2009, Brigham Young University announced that it would be closing the Women's Research Institute, the program which housed the university's women's studies minor. I am fortunate enough to know someone who was previously affiliated with the WRI -- my wife Ariel, who taught at the WRI in the summer of 2006. I have invited her to share her thoughts on this event.

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to take a break from my Ph.D. program at Duke and spend a summer as visiting faculty at the Women’s Research Institute at Brigham Young University. Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, director of the Women’s Research Institute, invited me to teach Introduction to Women’s Studies, the core course requirement for the women’s studies minor, during BYU’s spring term. In need of both teaching experience and money, I agreed to teach the course even though I had a number of reservations about doing so. First of all, I had been a student at BYU for 5 years and had never even known they taught women’s studies courses at all. Was anyone going to enroll? But more importantly, I was fresh out of a graduate women’s studies course at Duke, an institution with a “real” women’s studies department and an active feminist agenda. I did not want to teach anything but a serious women’s studies syllabus—something I could teach at any university that would deal with touchy issues such as female sexuality. And was I even allowed to say “feminism” at BYU without ending up in my bishop’s office? Would it be like my previous two summers of teaching Book of Mormon in the religion department, where veteran religion professors regularly snuck into the back of my class to evaluate my orthodoxy?

I was glad to find that my fears were largely unfounded. Ballif-Spanvill, a highly intelligent and well-educated woman with the kindly appearance of an elementary school teacher, had mastered the art of treading lightly around the powers that be in order to keep the WRI largely autonomous. Because of her political savvy, the WRI was a haven of academic freedom for feminist scholars such as myself. While there, I was given free reign over what I could teach, the materials I could use, and the topics I could discuss. Ballif-Spanvill even tried to help me get through the BYU “honor code” computer filters to conduct my research on pornography. But what amazed me most about the WRI is the freedom I felt there not only as a feminist but also as a LDS scholar. While discussing issues such as sexual abuse, lesbianism, body image, and sex work, I was able to speak more openly and confidently about women’s issues than I ever had before because of the religious demographic of the classroom. While we discussed many of the same subjects that would have been part of the curriculum at any other university, there was also a place for testimony and for the reconciliation of fact with faith. It was a unique experience and one that I will never forget.

I had toyed with the idea of returning to the WRI one day when BYU was willing to put more resources into women’s studies and would finally fund some regular professorships in the WRI. Instead, the administration has decided to eliminate the WRI altogether, supposedly “streamlining and strengthening” the women’s studies minor by relocating it to the sociology department. I am skeptical. While the elimination of such a relatively-unpopular minor may seem like the logical choice in the midst of a serious economic recession, the administration of BYU must consider the long-term results of this choice. Women’s studies is not only a department but a symbol of social progress and a commitment to equality at universities around the world. It can be of no coincidence that the WRI was founded in 1978, only shortly after LDS African Americans were allowed to hold the priesthood and in the midst of debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, an era in which both BYU and the Church were seeking ways in which to express their dedication to racial and gender equality. Has the need for such visual symbolism ceased in this time of Proposition 8? Hardly.

In emphasizing the symbolic value of the WRI, I do not wish to demean the actual academic value of women’s studies at BYU. The WRI has served over the past thirty-one years to pursue specific goals central not only to the feminist agenda but also to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: to promote the education of women, to recognize and eliminate the exploitation of women, and to end violence and abuse of women. In light of these considerations, one might even argue that the goals and achievements of the WRI are of greater social, political, and even eternal importance than those of most other departments at BYU. Yet in eliminating the WRI and burying the women’s studies minor in the sociology department, the administration is marginalizing these aims and reinforcing to the world (once again) that money-making lawyers and accountants glorify God better than engaged citizens sensitized to social injustice and committed to change.