Three years ago then-Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky recognized the importance of Women's Studies and established a committee to bring the burgeoning discipline to Harvard. In the process, he also burdened the committee with an unrealistic task: that of bringing to Harvard a topflight scholar who would double as an administrator and generate an entire Women's Studies program, which has proven at best lukewarm to the idea.
It is no wonder, then, that three years later Harvard remains the only Ivy League institution not to have given any organized support to the growing, interdisciplinary field. It is also no wonder that the Women's Studies committee one year ago could not lure renowned literary critic Elaine Showalter away from an offer at Princeton, which--unlike Harvard--has already demonstrated its commitment to the field.
A vicious cycle is at work: traditional departments like History and Biology seem to be waiting to take their cue from a central program before creating more gender-related courses. At the same time, the Women's Studies Committee cannot attract top scholars without proving that the University is serious about the discipline.
And so, as the school year begins, Harvard students wanting to explore the discipline--which is really many fields including feminist literary criticism, post-Freudian psychology, women's history and gender issues--will have to pick and choose from a handful of courses sprinkled throughout various departments. The 50 or more seniors this year in traditional departments writing theses with Women's Studies slants will have to fight it out for the few advisors knowledgeable enough to guide them. And most, if not all, students wanting to design a special Women's Studies concentration will be denied the opportunity--of 30 applicants so far, only one student, two years ago, won official sanction.
Women's Studies must be interdisciplinary, but it is not an esoteric or unwieldy project for a responsible university. We support the establishment of a degree-granting committee for Women's Studies, similar to Social Studies or to History and Literature. Regardless of its actual structure, such a program would at least offer several introductory, interdisciplinary courses and tutorials, which in time would be augmented by other gender-related courses in the various traditional departments.
Women's Studies has proven itself a legitimate academic discipline at hundreds of other colleges and universities, in the U.S. and elsewhere. Harvard's Extension School this year will begin offering a Master's degree in the field. And despite the fact that many are offered only sporadically, Women's Studies courses have proven popular among both male and female undergraduates, from a wide range of departments.
It is high time that the College abandon its indifference. It is also high time for the Women's Studies Committee to demand the attention and the funding which it requires to be effective.
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