Republican lawmakers target gender studies at University of Wyoming

Legislation to defund gender and women’s studies at the University of Wyoming has stoked professors’ fears about how far lawmakers will go to block public colleges from teaching courses they don’t like. not.

The Wyoming Senate voted on Friday to pass a budget amendment that would prevent the university from using state money for its gender and women’s studies program and courses, a move that would effectively eliminate them. With one version of the amendment dead in the state House and its future unclear, the mere possibility of it passing has left some Wyoming professors reeling from what they see as an infringement. to their academic freedom.

“This amendment is incredibly ideological,” said Michelle Jarman, associate professor of disability studies and associate director of the gender and women’s studies program. “It’s basically saying that a person’s belief system should dictate an entire academic curriculum, and that’s dangerous ground.”

Jarman and other faculty members launched a letter-writing campaign to pressure lawmakers not to pass the amendment. They also hope to start planning a march to Cheyenne, the state capital.

University president Edward Seidel and provost Kevin Carman said in a statement that they disagreed with the Senate vote and would continue to monitor the issue as the budget process continues. of the state would advance.

The amendment’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, and other supporters believe the program perpetuates a progressive agenda and “trains activists,” as Steinmetz said during Friday’s session. Another proponent said gender and women’s studies is “an extremely biased and ideological curriculum” with no “academic legitimacy.”

As a field, women’s and gender studies has activist roots. The discipline, born out of the civil rights movement, centers critical reflection and discussion on gender disparities and discrimination. Gender studies has long been political football for critics who claim colleges teach subjects without academic merit.

But faculty members of the program say women’s and gender studies is an essential discipline — not just in itself, but because it informs so many others.

Gender and Women’s Studies in Wyoming is housed in the School of Culture, Gender, and Social Justice, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Its affiliated scholars teach in several disciplines, including Native American and Indigenous Studies, African American Diaspora Studies, Latinx Studies, and American Studies.

Thus, a threat to the program could have wider implications. If the amendment passes, Jarman wondered, could those faculty members also lose their jobs?

“We have a long theoretical tradition that many other disciplines look to — voices that have provided lenses that have allowed other fields to challenge their own biases,” Jarman said. “It’s an attempt to erase a very important job.”

Wave wording

The Senate amendment would block any “general funds, federal funds, or other funds” within the university for “gender studies courses, 8 academic programs, co-curricular programs, or after-school programs.”

Jacquelyn L. Bridgeman, a professor at Wyoming’s College of Law and director of the School of Culture, Gender and Social Justice, said she was troubled by the vague way the amendment was worded. In fact, she says, her language could apply to all academic and extracurricular programs.

“Gender studies touches almost every class taught in college,” she said. “I teach labor law. Can I no longer teach about sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the classroom? I teach family law. Can I stop teaching same-sex marriage? Anything to do with the study or discussion of gender – does it fall under this law? »

That apparent magnitude could raise a constitutional issue, Bridgeman said, even if the legislature has the power to appropriate funding for higher education. She believes the legislation violates both the First and 14th Amendments.

If a law could defund gender studies, what would stop lawmakers from banning any subject they don’t like?

Even if the amendment is not signed into law, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat, said Friday he was concerned about the precedent set by lawmakers seeking to block what the university can teach. If a law could defund gender studies, Rothfuss asked, what would stop lawmakers, in Wyoming or elsewhere, from banning any subject they don’t like?

Something like this has happened in several states, where Republican lawmakers have sought to ban schools and colleges from teaching critical race theory. In Iowa, for example, a law passed last year prohibits colleges from teaching about, among other things, “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” in relation to race. or someone’s sex. Last month, the lieutenant governor of Texas said he wanted to revoke the tenure of any professor teaching critical race theory.

The Rothfuss question is what worries Kristen M. Barber, associate professor of sociology and former director of women’s and gender studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“I fear that as history departments are cut, as gender studies, race studies and ethnic studies become underfunded or under attack, we will lose historical and current conversations about marginalized people and their experiences of the world,” Barber said.

Students often see each other and see their lived experiences in the classes, Barber said, giving the classes a natural appeal.

“Students who take these classes are not afraid of what they are going to be taught in gender studies classes,” Barber said. “They are not the ones making these decisions.”

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