A Modest Proposal

The more things change, so goes a popular French proverb, the more they stay the same. Just ask Radcliffe College which, for most students, was irrelevant before and will remain irrelevant after the "merger" with Harvard College.

In one sense, students' nonchalance surrounding its dissolution into the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study proves Radcliffe's tremendous success in prying Harvard open for women: the mission as accomplished in 1977, when Radcliffe delegated all responsibility for educating undergraduate women to Harvard. Since then, its status as an independent college has been a fig-leaf. What is a college to do after all its students attend another? What is Indigo Montoya to do after he avenges his father' death in The Princess Bride?

In another sense, the merger is quite disappointing. According to the Office to the Assistant to the President, women still make up only about 12 percent of tenured faculty within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. You could count the number of full female minority professors on one hand, even if you have already lost two or three fingers in an accident. Rape still happens. Thus, Radcliffe's quiet exit at stage left is unfortunate, because it misses the once-in-a-120-year chance to make a truly bold statement regarding women's education.

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is unlikely to benefit students directly, because it will offer only non-degree educational programs. It will have its own dean and a fair amount of autonomy, but no students. It will have workshops, symposia, colloquia and brown-bag lunches, but at $300 million, it's no bargain.

Here is how the merger should have been handled to ensure a lasting impact on students and all other visiting scholars, writers and fellows Radcliffe plans to benefit. It's modest proposal really, party inspired by Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, who advocated something similar in the late 1970s.


Radcliffe should have put its roughly $200 million into escrow to endow 100 female professorships, 30 into Women's Studies, the other 70 in departments like economics, computer science, physics and history. In those departments, women professors are woefully underrepresented, because Harvard still does not in all areas hire according to "availability rate"--the percentage of doctorates awarded to women nationally. In those departments, underrepresentation of women is not a supply-side but a demand side problem.

These 100 professors would all be called the "Radcliffe Professors," and they would teach undergraduates and graduates for credit. Women's Studies should move from Prescott Street to Fay House or a larger facility in the Radcliffe Yard; its status as a committee should be upgraded to that of a full department. The Radcliffe Institute should still be formed, but to support independent research for Women's Studies only.

Who would be the new "Radcliffe Professors"? Katha Pollit, Nancy Chodorow, Toni Morrison, Donna Shalala, Judith Butler, Maxine Hong Kingston, Catharine MacKinnon, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Arlie Hochschild, Alice Walker. You fill in the blank. The availability of serious scholars is not the problem. Here, the Field of Dreams dictum of "if you build it, they will come" prevails.

If you look at the Afro-American Studies department as a parallel, you can see why Radcliffe should invest in professorships in Women's Studies rather than the Radcliffe Institute. The Afro-American Studies department is known for Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, William Julius Wilson and other high-octane academics. It is not known for the W.E.B. DuBios Institute for Afro-American Research, the analog to the Radcliffe Institute.

Moreover, investing in a department rather than a research institute benefits students directly. Concentrators and non-concentrators take Afro-American course offerings. Blacks, whites, Asians and Jews enroll in those classes. How many students encounter the W.E.B. DuBios Institute on a regular basis?

Allocating funds to new Women's Studies department with 30 fresh professorship rather than an institute would do the same, allowing students of both genders to benefit by offering an incentive to study for credit, to read post-modern feminist theory, to discuss Army Tan novels, Juliet Schor sociological tracts and Simone de Beauvoir. In this way, Radcliffe would stay true to its mission to "advance society by advancing women" of all ages, while prioritizing undergraduate education.

Will creating a hundred female professorship radically shift the gender ratio within the college? With currently over 400 tenured faculty, Women's Studies into a nationally renowned department would so what the Radcliffe Institute wants to do, to express "continuing commitment to the study of women, gender, and society." But it would do so in a truly bold and dramatic fashion--by fully integrating men and women, administratively and intellectually, at Harvard (and Radcliffe). Alexander T. Nguyen'99 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column will resume during reading period.

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