To the Editor:

The following is a letter signed by 75 members of the Kenyon College faculty responding to Elizabeth Lilla’s article, “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Studies?” [February]. The letter was circulated informally among the faculty. Thus, not every member had an opportunity to sign it. However, those who did sign constitute a clear majority of the faculty and represent every academic department. Both junior and senior faculty members are included.

We sincerely hope that this letter will help to rectify the image of Kenyon College presented in Mrs. Lilla’s article.

We are both distressed and confused by Elizabeth Lilla’s recent article, “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Studies?” As faculty members at Kenyon College, we are concerned about her portrayal of Kenyon as simultaneously intellectually repressive and dissension-riddled because of the presence of women’s studies. Our confusion stems from being unable to comprehend why Mrs. Lilla believes this is an accurate picture of Kenyon.

It is true that women’s studies has been the focus of discussion and debate at Kenyon. This is both expected and healthy. Indeed, any modification of the curriculum (such as the institution of our Integrated Program in Humane Studies) generates such debate at Kenyon. However, the nature and outcome of the debate over women’s studies are, in our opinion, quite different from what has been presented by Mrs. Lilla. The faculty has been consistently supportive of women’s studies. For example, the faculty voted to send the women’s-studies proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) by more than a 2-to-l margin (the vote was 77-36). The proposal concerning the director of Women’s Academic Concerns was submitted to the administration carrying the signatures of 25 women faculty members and administrators. This represents not only the vast majority of women faculty members, but nearly one-quarter of the entire faculty. Faculty support for women’s studies is also reflected in the fact that fully a dozen courses in this year’s course catalogue refer to gender issues in either their title or course description. Many other courses include at least some discussion of gender issues.

Of course, if one accepted Mrs. Lilla’s conceptualization of the situation, it could be argued that such faculty support is attributable to administrative pressure. There are at least two clear-cut examples that this would be an erroneous conclusion. First, last year the Gambier Journal charged that women faculty were being pressured by the administration to conform to feminist ideology and teaching. At that time, 18 women faculty members sent a letter to the campus newspaper stating that they had not personally been victims of such pressure and had no knowledge of anyone who had been. These faculty members then requested that anyone who was so pressured come forward so that we could support a grievance against the administration. No one did. Second, the Women’s Faculty Caucus, referred to in the article as initiated by the provost, was actually started to raise questions about the hiring and retention of women faculty. Both the president and the provost were the targets of these inquiries and complaints.

We are also confused by Mrs. Lilla’s contention that Kenyon students are apathetic about women’s studies. It is true that the formal initiative for women’s studies came from the faculty. Again, this is expected and healthy. Curricular modification is the realm of the faculty, not the students. We did not ask the students if they “approved” of the recent change in diversification requirements. They were not consulted about whether to grant credit for physical-education courses. We do not seek their advice about how the requirements for a major should be structured. Rather, we consistently assume that the faculty is best equipped to judge what constitutes a “good” education. Let us reiterate that the faculty has clearly indicated that the inclusion of women’s studies improves the quality of education at Kenyon.

This is not to say that student opinion and interest are completely irrelevant. Mrs. Lilla’s statement that “. . . only 32 out of a possible 1,400 students signed up . . .” for the worn-en’s-studies survey course is misleading. Thirty-two is a large enrollment at Kenyon. The average class only has 15-20 students and many classes enroll fewer than 10 students. Since this course fulfills neither diversification nor major requirements, it is actually surprising that so many students enrolled. This, by the way, is one reason that we cannot expect high enrollments in the course every year. Many interested Kenyon students simply cannot fit the course into their schedule.

It is also misleading to judge interest in women’s studies solely on the basis of enrollments in the survey course. Many of the courses we referred to above are fully enrolled. In fact, this year’s women’s-studies course on the family is overenrolled (i.e., is over the enrollment limit) despite the fact that it fills no requirements. The movie Not a Love Story, cited by Mrs. Lilla as exemplifying administrative bias, was shown three times because of student demand. All of the students who wanted to see the movie could not fit into the auditorium during the originally scheduled two showings. While it is certainly true that not all Kenyon students are interested in women’s studies, it is absolutely clear that a significant number of them have at least some interest.

Obviously, then, we believe that Mrs. Lilla has presented a distorted view of women’s studies at Kenyon. We do not know the source of her perspective. We do know that she did not interview this year’s or last year’s Coordinator of Women’s Studies. Nor did she speak to the chair of the Women’s Faculty Caucus. We doubt that she even discussed this issue with a representative sample of Kenyon faculty or students. While we have not addressed every issue raised in her article, we hope that we have touched on enough of the major issues at least partially to correct her negative image of Kenyon College.

Linda Smolak
Coordinator of Women’s Studies
Kenyon College
Gambier, Ohio

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To the Editor:

None of us at Kenyon is terribly pleased by the story of the college told by Elizabeth Lilla. But we are also distressed by the letter sent to you over the signatures of many of our colleagues. They state that Mrs. Lilla has presented a false picture, and we believe that, unfortunately, Mrs. Lilla’s account is substantially correct.

Although our colleagues were no doubt motivated by an understandable desire to protect the college from adverse publicity, we feel that their letter manifests a certain hypocrisy and results in unfairness to Mrs. Lilla. Many of the staff and faculty who signed that letter are recent additions to the college who could not have known at first hand of the events they describe. And some of the signers, who also signed another letter to which they refer, in which administrative pressure to conform to a feminist agenda is denied, were in fact the very women who in private conversations earlier complained of that pressure.

We are sorry to see truth and fairness sacrificed, even if with the best of intentions, and we hope our colleagues will forgive us for saying so.

Carl Brehm, Richard B. Hoppe,
Robert H. Horwitz,
Thomas Short

Kenyon College
Gambier, Ohio

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To the Editor:

During the spring of 1985, we began to hear the same rumors Elizabeth Lilla had heard about what was happening at Kenyon College. We received the subscription letter from the editors of the Gambier Journal referred to by Mrs. Lilla, and later we read the lively articles about the controversies at Kenyon in the Journal. As alumni loyal to the college and its curriculum, we felt that the allegations concerning the corruption of the curriculum by the administration and some of the faculty raised in the pages of the Journal deserved further investigation. So in order to determine what was going on at Kenyon we spent a considerable amount of time speaking to or corresponding with members of the faculty as well as recent graduates.

Our efforts were quite independent of Mrs. Lilla’s. In fact, we were not aware of Mrs. Lilla’s investigation and article until after we had conducted our own investigation and reached our own conclusions. Based on our inquiry into events at the college, we agree with the entire thrust of Mrs. Lilla’s article, and we would like to supplement it with the following remarks. . . .

Recently, the philosophy department at Kenyon had a tenure-track position open for which it was seeking applicants. The department had decided to seek a candidate who specialized in two of four general areas: 19th-century philosophy, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of social sciences, and Oriental philosophy. A member of the administration then urged the department to add the “philosophy of feminism” to the list; the department complied, although some members protested. . . . The rationale for the change was that it would “increase the applicant pool to include more women” and, it was hoped, “increase the likelihood that a woman would be hired.” . . .

It should be pointed out that the philosophy department at Kenyon, which consists of six persons, already has two faculty members who claim to specialize in the “philosophy of feminism.” Furthermore, . . . the college’s own guidelines for employment, as set forth in the revised Faculty Handbook, state:

No criteria of sex, ethnic origin, marital status, or family affiliation shall influence the evaluation of applicants. [Emphasis added.]

Thus an applicant’s sex and background in feminism have now become of paramount importance in the hiring process at Kenyon College, despite the needs of the department and the college guidelines.

The president and other members of the administration and its supporters among the faculty are fond of claiming that the administration’s actions have the overwhelming support of the faculty. They point to the relatively small number of faculty who have publicly objected to the direction being taken by the college. What is either denied or left unmentioned are the Machiavellian tactics used by the administration to coerce support and stifle dissent among faculty members. We have received confidential communications from a number of faculty, representing at least nine different departments, all of whom complain of administrative pressure to conform. . . .

We have found that there is a strong perception among faculty, especially among untenured faculty, that the administration is quite willing to use its considerable powers to support its friends and punish those whom it deems its enemies. For example, when we met with the then-chairman of the faculty to discuss the recent events at the college, he recounted to us many instances in which untenured and visiting members of the faculty complained privately to him about the provost and other members of the administration who “strongly encouraged” them to incorporate feminism into their curricula. Because of the position of young, untenured, and visiting faculty members, the effects of this “encouragement” are too obvious to belabor.

We were also told of a situation where an ardent supporter of the administration and a radical feminist was given tenure by the administration over the objection of senior members of the department. As we understand it, this is highly irregular. At the same time, we were informed that another member of the same department who was not sufficiently ardent in her support of the administration was harassed by the administration until she left the college. . . .

The administration has not been above retaliating against an entire department when that department has not been sufficiently supportive of its agenda. Witness the actions taken against the political-science department. The political-science department at Kenyon has eschewed trendy, ideological issues and focused on the disinterested study of the more timeless philosophical subjects, providing students with a solid philosophical basis from which to study political issues. The department’s approach is inherently different from the ideological feminism which is encouraged by the administration at Kenyon, and the department has resisted the actions of the administration. . . .

Last spring, the administration refused to hire the department’s choice for a tenure-track position. When the department refused to accept a candidate supported by the administration for the same position, the administration responded by refusing to hire anyone, and also refusing to rehire two visiting political-science professors. . . . The net result of this action was a 25-percent cut in the staffing of the political-science department. If implemented, it would have forced the department to curtail course offerings to students drastically. It was only after vociferous condemnation of this action by alumni and students, and a lengthy investigation by a faculty committee, that the administration backed down and permitted the rehiring of the two visiting professors. In doing so, however, it made only a small concession because while it allowed the visiting professors to return for one year, it demoted them and denied them a vote in faculty meetings. The administration’s actions constitute a clear message to other departments which might refuse to support its agenda. . . .

Finally, we believe that women’s studies at Kenyon, so well depicted by Mrs. Lilla, is actually a symptom of a more serious problem. . . . At Kenyon, “the right-think bandwagon,” to use one professor’s phrase, happens to be radical feminism, though no doubt other academic institutions and faculties have their own pet ideologies. What is most unfortunate is the fact that there seems to be a growing number of academics at Kenyon and elsewhere who feel that proselytizing in the classroom is perfectly acceptable, and, indeed, necessary. . . .

Although it is serious, we do not believe that the damage done to Kenyon by this administration and its supporters among faculty members is irreversible. With the support of alumni and friends of the college and with continuous pressure on college trustees, we hope that positive changes at Kenyon are not beyond hope.

Richard Baehr, Julia Marlowe,
Diana Schaub, Jeffrey Smith,
Scott Univer, Lauren Weiner,
Henry P. Wickham, Jr.

The Committee for Liberal Education at Kenyon
Columbus, Ohio

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To the Editor:

Elizabeth Lilla provides a vivid illustration of a problem currently endemic within American higher education: the deformation of traditional canons of teaching and scholarship to suit the purposes of radical activism. As she demonstrates in the case of Kenyon, the leaders in this process are academics rather than students. While this represents a break with the pattern of the 60’s, it is the natural consequence of the events of that decade.

During the 60’s an exceptionally large cohort of university students were absorbed into the political culture of the Left and the enthusiasms that it spawned. Many of them chose to make careers for themselves within higher education, careers which were facilitated by an unprecedented wave of institutional expansion. This academic generation, now entering full professional maturity, is gaining a considerable hand in the governance of departments, programs, and whole institutions. Moreover, their views decisively shape the ideological climate on most campuses. The result can be situations like that at Kenyon.

What is unusual about Kenyon is the sweep of the effort to harness the entire curriculum to the feminist agenda, and the sturdiness of the resistance. At most institutions the “mainstreaming” of radical pedagogy tends to be a collaborative activity of like-minded faculty spread throughout the academic structure, with the top administration playing a legitimizing rather than a driving role. Because this is often accomplished through changes in lecture content or reading assignments, it may not always find full reflection in the formal descriptions of courses and programs. More traditional faculty, without the stomach for a fight, can thus find excuses not to notice, while alumni, and the public at large, are kept in the dark.

On the other hand, some of the efforts to mask advocacy as education have received visible institutional expression, taking the form of programs of instruction in which “consciousness-raising” is at least as important as the acquisition of knowledge. “Peace Studies” and ethnic-studies programs can generally be placed alongside women’s studies in this category. A count of such programs conveys a sense of the magnitude of the phenomenon. For example, according to the National Women’s Studies Institute, 476 women’s-studies programs were in place as of 1984, buttressed by at least 25 journals of feminist “scholarship.” The number of programs is believed to have since grown substantially. The World Policy Institute records 235 college “peace-studies” programs offering majors or minors (up from 180 last year), involving between 17 to 23 faculty apiece, and comprising a total of some 3,000 courses. Black Studies seems to have undergone a contraction since its heyday in the 70’s, but, according to the National Council for Black Studies, it is still represented by some 350 college programs, associated with over 15 journals.

The travails of Kenyon document the dangers to education posed by the new intellectual orthodoxies and the pseudo-disciplines they have produced. Elizabeth Lilla and the dissident faculty and students at Kenyon College are to be commended for their exposure of these unpleasant academic realities.

Stephen H. Balch
Campus Coalition for Democracy
New York City

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To the Editor:

Elizabeth Lilla’s article confirms my worst fears—that those outside Gambier got an exceedingly skewed image of what was going on at Kenyon College last spring. I was a student at Kenyon at the time; allow me to clarify the picture for those too distant to see any but its broadest outlines.

As far as women’s studies goes, it seems odd that one interdisciplinary course with a handful of students and a library shelf of about 100 volumes should be seen as such a threat to academic freedom. Odder still are the staunch defenders of liberal arts, on campus and off, who praise critical analysis and free thought, yet who are trying to prevent free feminist thought from critically analyzing liberal arts. Women’s studies at Kenyon was a course, not a rebellion, and feminism there is not an administrative inquisition—it is a call from a diverse group of community members for a reassessment of women’s roles in society, and in the academy.

The editors of the Gambier Journal saw it as more; no one denied them the right to do so. Until, that is, they started bending (and breaking) the rules. They finagled an alumni mailing list by providing an innocuous subscription letter for approval. Upon obtaining the list, they substituted their “militant-feminists” letter for the original.

When this dubious practice was under investigation (by a board of students, faculty, and administration), it was discovered that the editors had skirted the Journal’s constitution at least twice: in refusing to publish an article until it was rewritten to reflect their own opinions; and, more importantly, in their own ascension to editorship. When it was proven that they had not been fairly elected to their editorial positions, the rest of the charges became moot. They were removed from the Journal. It should be pointed out that at this time the Journal was funded by the college and was under an obligation to follow the rules set for all college publications.

The Journal has since been incorporated, and the college has chosen not to pursue a lawsuit (which the student government had approved) against the incorporation. The administration allows the new Gambier Journal to be distributed in dormitories, which no other non-college publication may do. There have been claims of administrative harassment, but since no formal complaints or charges have been lodged, we must assume the claims to be unfounded.

Granted, some people at Kenyon are “militant feminists.” Granted, too, we must be careful not to allow any critical voice to be itself exempt from criticism—but that should include both women’s studies and the Gambier Journal, both of which have been given a fair chance at Kenyon College.

Paul B. Singer
Arlington, Virginia

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To the Editor:

As the parent of a Kenyon freshman, I was dismayed to read the singularly ill-tempered article by Elizabeth Lilla. The article is so full of contempt for women’s studies, so intolerant of genuine discussion about the parameters of a liberal-arts education, so rich in innuendoes, and so ungenerous to all concerned that one can only wonder what animus against Kenyon College, or women’s studies, prompted her to write it. . . .

Is it irony, contempt, or a misguided sense of humor that motivates this sentence: “To continue on Kenyon’s traditional course might be noble or rewarding, but it would hardly win the school (or its new president) national attention. Perhaps, though, something could be added to make Kenyon College competitive with its more fashionable counterparts, to bring it closer to the cutting edge?” Mrs. Lilla contradicts herself in the next paragraph, where she maintains that “What is surely on the cutting edge today is women’s studies. Both as a field of its own and as a cross-disciplinary enterprise, women’s studies is firmly established in many top universities. . . .” But what is firmly established cannot be on the cutting edge, or so it would seem. Also, why does she consider “worrisome” the hiring of a new provost (whose convocation speech, by the way, was one of the best of its kind I have heard in over thirty years of working in institutions of higher learning) and the submission’ of a grant proposal to the NEH to set up a women’s-studies program?

Is Mrs. Lilla so convinced that she is an expert on what constitutes a liberal-arts education that any discussion of its focus or direction is heretical? Is it not important that those who claim to educate the young take time to examine the premises and convictions that underlie their teaching? Is it really inconceivable that all knowledge is presented from a point of view—and that the best we can do is examine self-consciously the perspective of our own truths? . . .

I have visited Kenyon several times. I have met some members of the faculty and the administration and a number of my daughter’s friends. It is hard to believe that the lively, intelligent, and confident intellectual community of Kenyon College could be so misrepresented.

Eva R. Gossman
Princeton, New Jersey

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Elizabeth Lilla writes:

While I am naturally distressed to find that so many Kenyon College faculty members have taken issue with my article, I am heartened by the tone of their letter; this is without doubt the most temperate statement to have emerged from the school in recent years. Unfortunately, however, the letter also displays the same rhetorical tactics found in many of the documents I cited in my article, and a number of factual errors as well.

  1. “The faculty has been consistently supportive of women’s studies.” This is simply not the case. In my interview with the provost when I was conducting research for my article, he himself admitted that “If I could do it all over again I would be more cognizant of the traditional nature of the institution and the best ways to achieve faculty input. I had no administrative experience before this, and I didn’t bargain for this response.” If, as this letter insists, the faculty had been so “consistently supportive” of the introduction of women’s studies, why would the provost have wished, as he also said, that he had taken “more time” and been “more deliberate in seeking wider faculty input” so that women’s studies could have been kept from “blowing up in our faces”?
  2. “[T]he faculty voted to send the women’s-studies proposal to the NEH by more than a 2-to-1 margin (the vote was 77-36).” The signers of this letter omit what is probably the most significant fact about the NEH application (requesting funds for the women’s-studies course and for incorporating the “new scholarship on women” into the curriculum): the administration had no intention of letting the faculty see it. It knew full well how controversial the proposals would be, and it wished to circumvent the faculty and submit the document directly to NEH. One individual, though, who had been privy to the drafting of the proposal, decided that the curricular reforms it suggested were too drastic not to be shared with the faculty, and he personally copied and distributed the document. It was only in response to the ensuing outrage that the administration sought a vote from the faculty. What was remarkable about that vote—as anyone familiar with academic life will appreciate—is not that the measure was approved by a “2-to-l margin,” but that at a tiny college a third of those voting refused to endorse what was clearly a pet project of their school’s president and provost.
  3. “The proposal concerning the director of Women’s Academic Concerns was submitted to the administration carrying the signatures of 25 women faculty members and administrators. This represents not only the vast majority of women faculty members, but nearly one-quarter of the entire faculty.” Twenty-one out of those 25 were faculty members; 21 out of 40 hardly constitutes a “vast majority.” Again, however, what is revealing about the statistic is that half the women faculty at Kenyon would have the courage not to sign such a proposal—an act that involves, among other things, becoming subject to the charge of being anti-woman (or as the feminists at Kenyon like to say, being a “male-woman”). Incidentally, 21 signers would constitute a seventh, not a fourth, of the total faculty at Kenyon.
  4. “Thirty-two is a large enrollment at Kenyon. The average class only has 15-20 students. . . .” I am well aware that class size at Kenyon is very small; that’s one reason I went there, and one thing that has helped make it a fine school. But there is a difference between class and course enrollment. Many courses at Kenyon are quite large indeed; one would especially expect this to be the case for a course—like women’s studies—that claims to appeal to the entire student body. The signers of this letter also skirt my more important point: that enrollment in the women’s-studies course continually declined, dropping to a mere seven students (with no accompanying decline, one should add, in the resources devoted to the course). The letter explains that “many interested Kenyon students simply cannot fit the course into their schedule.” This statement is meaningless, since it could apply equally to every course offered at the college. And it does not account for the fact that, at a time when only seven out of 1,400 warm-blooded post-adolescents chose to sign up for a class on gender and the relations between the sexes, 38 students managed to “fit” into their schedules another interdisciplinary course—on the Holocaust.
  5. “[T]his year’s women’s-studies course on the family is overenrolled.” The faculty who signed this letter neglect to mention that nowhere in the course catalogue is the phrase “women’s studies” used in conjunction with this course; it is quite possible that the course received a decent enrollment simply because it did not bear that stigma. The whole episode, indeed, bears out what the provost told me in our conversation: that the main thing he learned from the controversy surrounding the introduction of women’s studies was the need to integrate it subtly into other courses.

It is a sad commentary on the situation at Kenyon that, of the 75 or so faculty who chose not to sign the above letter, only four—Carl Brehm, Richard B. Hoppe, Robert H. Horwitz, and Thomas Short—have been willing to dissent publicly. But though these four individuals may be few in number they are large in spirit, and I am grateful for their public support, as well as for the additional points they make regarding pressures to conform at Kenyon.

I was until very recently unaware of a group called the Committee for Liberal Education at Kenyon (I was certainly ignorant of it at the time I was writing my article), but I am pleased to learn of its existence now, and wish it much luck in restoring Kenyon to its former dignity. The committee’s letter clearly details the extent of the administration’s commitment to feminist doctrine and to the general notion of education as being, in some way, a political enterprise. Both this letter and that of the Campus Coalition for Democracy raise important points that help place the recent events at Kenyon in the proper larger context of the overall politicization of the academy. I especially appreciate the awareness on the part of these groups that criticism of one’s alma mater need not be construed as mere nay-saying, but can arise out of love and admiration for an institution, and despair at seeing it gone awry.

Paul B. Singer’s letter contains detailed criticisms of the running of last year’s Gambier Journal. As I am not in a position to address the specific legal and procedural questions he raises, I suggest he take these up directly with the former editors of the paper.

My compliments to Eva R. Gossman for managing to incorporate the words “contempt,” “intolerant,” “innuendoes,” “ungenerous,” and “animus” into one sentence. I take issue, though, with her suggestion that I am not interested in “genuine discussion about the parameters of a liberal-arts education.” On the contrary, that was precisely what motivated me to write my article.

Mrs. Gossman raises a crucial issue when she asks, “Is it not important that those who claim to educate the young take time to examine the premises and convictions that underlie their teaching?” The question as posed has such a natural, commonsensical ring to it that it seems downright barbaric to answer no. Had the question been asked about methods of teaching, I would certainly have answered in the affirmative. But isn’t the whole point about premises that they provide the parameters (to use Mrs. Gossman’s word) within which one adapts, changes, and innovates? To draw on a familiar analogy: is it not possible that just as there are certain requisites for being a good parent, there may be certain requisites for being a good teacher—for example, that one refrain from imposing one’s own political, religious, and other personal views on one’s students?

This may seem a retrograde position to take at a time when all sorts of radical criticism are the norm in the academy. I am well aware—with Mrs. Gossman and Nietzsche—that “all knowledge is presented from a point of view,” and that “the best we can do is examine self-consciously the perspective of our own truths.” But while this may be true for the practice of philosophy and for individual reflection, it is hardly a desirable operating premise for anyone involved in the task of passing on knowledge. More importantly, Mrs. Gossman overlooks the fact that what takes place in most women’s-studies courses is not even this kind of radical philosophical skepticism—which can at least be intellectually honest and rigorous—but simply the transmission of a whole new slate of truths. And the word for that is indoctrination.

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