It Could Happen Here


The resignation of feminist literary critic Carolyn G. Heilbrun from the Columbia faculty should be taken as a strong signal to university administrators across the nation: Feminist scholarship needs support. Heilbrun, a tenured professor who had been at Columbia for 32 years, says she gave up her position this year to protest Columbia's neglect of her field and specifically its failure to tenure more women faculty. While the situation at Harvard is better, we should remain vigilant.

Harvard's women's studies concentration is not on strong enough footing. As a committee-based, rather than a department-based program, women's studies lacks the ability to hire its own scholars. Therefore, it may not be able to build a suitably cohesive curriculum.

Still, Heilbrun's resignation shouldn't be taken the wrong way. Universities should not be pressured into hiring single, token women and minority faculty members as a way to appease angry professors. That was where former Professor of Law Derrick A. Bell's well intentioned crusade fell short.

Rather, they should be encouraged--by quiet reason as well as angry protest--to set up long-term commitments to hire qualified women and minorities in all fields.

This includes building inclusive Ph.D. programs, making an extra effort during tenure searches to bring women and minority scholars to campus and ensuring that women's studies and multicultural studies programs thrive. Harvard's rebuilding of the Afro-American Studies Department can serve as a loose model.


What Columbia fails to understand is that supporting feminist scholarship (and gender studies more broadly) has little to do with political struggles. Clearly someone's defense of the traditional canon is just as political as someone else's defense of multiculturalism. But what's more important is that multiculturalism--education which includes academic work by women and people of color--fosters better scholarship and makes for a better university.

How could a university reasonably argue that excluding feminist studies--or allowing them to languish--makes sense? Good scholarship cannot mean cordoning off certain areas of study, even if budgetary realities sometimes restrict the breadth of an institution's curriculum.

As DuBois Professor of Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. pointed out in his book Loose Canons, even the academic ideals of the ancients demanded inclusion. Today's traditional curriculum must not be seen as the universal curriculum. Part of any university's mandate must be to study as much of the world's cultural heritage as possible--not define away areas as unimportant.

In this context, the voices of feminist scholars must be included in the chorus of the academy. Not to make people feel more comfortable, as the Harvey Mansfields of the world charge, but to create better scholarship and better universities.

Harvard should take the lead among American universities to ensure that we don't read about more Carolyn Heilbruns. We simply don't have any scholars to waste.

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