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Harvard will announce the first endowed professorship in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies in the country at a dinner after Commencement activities.
The University has received $1.5 million from the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Caucus to endow the F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality—a position to be filled by visiting scholars in LGBT issues for one semester in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
The creation of the professorship marks a singular moment in Harvard’s history with respect to LGBT studies. As recently as 2003, Women’s Studies was refashioned to become the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, which allows students to choose between the tracks of LGBT studies or women’s studies. Though universities across the country have instituted similar programs and coursework in the field, the Matthiessen professorship is the first actual endowed position.
“Plenty of universities hire professors [in the field], but an endowed professorship is a statement by the University that this is an important program,” said Caucus member Thomas H. Parry ’74, who helped initiate the campaign to raise money for the cause.
“It’s important for kids who are gay that the University acknowledges, recognizes, takes seriously this field,” Parry added. “It’s important that non-gay kids recognize that homosexuality and sexual minorities are an important part of the human condition.”
Upon the 2003 reformulation of WGS, leaders of the Caucus—a 4,900-member group that works to advocate for Harvard’s LGBT community—decided that it could support the new program by endowing a visiting professorship, according to Parry.
With the realization of this goal, Harvard will be able to invite visiting scholars that focus on varying facets of the interdisciplinary field of LGBT studies, instead of appointing a full professor of more narrow expertise, he said.
“It’s really important that we have a regular and ongoing opportunity for students to learn about and explore LGBT issues,” said Susan B. Marine, director of the Women’s Center, “including history, philosophy, theory, and what’s going on in the LGBT rights movement.”
The professorship—named after former English professor Francis O. Matthiessen, whose homosexuality was an open secret during his time at Harvard—marks a step forward in the larger movement seeking to legitimize fields like LGBT studies, according to Timothy P. McCarthy, a lecturer in public policy and in history and literature.
“I’m thrilled personally, as a gay scholar, to see that Harvard is making a big leap in terms of being able to show an even greater commitment to LGBT studies,” McCarthy said. “It’s the exciting culmination of a longer struggle to gain legitimacy for the study of LGBT people.”
FAS Dean Michael D. Smith will ask faculty members to recommend candidates for the professorship every year, according to Parry. Though selected scholars will be associated with WGS, they may be appointed in any FAS department.
Led by co-chairs Mitchell L. Adams ’66 and Kevin B. Jennings ’85, the Matthiessen Campaign Committee reached its funding goal by collecting gifts from Harvard affiliates and the Open Gate Foundation, a private foundation created by HGLC in 1987.
Though Harvard may be the first University to officially have an endowed professorship in LGBT studies, AIDS activist Larry Kramer offered an endowed chair in gay studies to Yale in the late 1990s—an offer Yale rejected, instead later accepting money from Kramer’s brother to help fund a gay and lesbian studies program.
—Staff writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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