To the editor:
Within the past week, Vanderbilt ended its search for a new director of the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center, placing Nora Spencer, current director of the Office of LGBTQI Life, in its directorship. The search process failed to produce a viable candidate, according to the administration, and the university has decided, in lieu of continuing the search process, to hire from within.
Though not a mistake in theory, placing the Women’s Center and Office of LGBTQI Life under the same leadership demonstrates blatant conflation of women’s and LGBT issues. Inextricably linked, the concerns of the LGBT community and women must be understood and embraced in order to alleviate the sufferings of all marginalized groups. However, the two must not be institutionalized together as, despite common ground, the methods, goals, and ultimate aims of each may differ in form as well as tactic.
Historically, the Women’s Center at Vanderbilt has made admirable strides, making advances in the struggle for women’s equality as well as ensuring the safety of all individuals at the university. In addition, the center has made unique contributions to the greater metropolitan area, enriching Nashville with vital programming and recognition of the issues all women face in their daily lives. Moreover, the center’s mission ultimately provides for recognition of the crucial intersection between gender and sexuality for all people – regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Notwithstanding the fact that such objectives are shared by the two centers, a single leadership will certainly detract from the realization of the goals of the women’s movement untarnished and unimpeded by the separate, though related, work of the cause of LGBT equality. To be sure, the women’s center has made more significant strides in terms of invaluable programming for the university and promotion of its cause than the Office of LGBTQI Life, so one naturally might pause to consider the motives behind such restructuring.
Even more shocking is the fact that many of the Women’s Center allies were not consulted about such drastic changes, and as a result, the integrity of the intricate network uniting such allies, staff, and students with the administration and the greater university community has been compromised. As president of the Vanderbilt Lambda Association (the university’s gay-straight alliance) over the past two years, my inner feminist as well as my sexual orientation finds such a decision devastating, presenting itself as an obstruction to the substantial progress Vanderbilt has made in recent years.
Most importantly, this decision effectively devalues the crucial emphasis on women that has made Vanderbilt historically strong in the field of diversity and the progression of student affairs. The Women’s Center has always maintained a trailblazing reputation for progress across the nation, and an association of this nature with the Office of LGBTQI Life will leave the Women’s Center in a precarious position with regard to its ability to continue its work.
The Women’s Center is firmly ensconced in the university community, having proven itself entirely capable of galvanizing university-wide support for issues facing both women and men. In addition, the center has produced inspirational, visible progress and serves as a beacon of social change and refusal to tolerate discrimination. With such an impressive record of achievement – one with which the Office of LGBTQI Life cannot compete (perhaps because of its more recent founding) – the decision to bring the two centers under the director of the Office of LGBTQI Life exudes disregard for the work of the Women’s Center, effectively ignoring the precedents set by similar structures within universities across the nation.
To further exacerbate the issue, the search for a new candidate for director was a local one. As a premier academic institution and leader in diversity issues, Vanderbilt has the capability of launching a national search for a professional immersed in feminist issues and thought that will lead Vanderbilt in pivotal new directions. Though Spencer, who sat on the search committee, presents with expertise on certain topics, careful examination of her credentials reveal that her qualifications are not reflective of the criteria set forth for the director of the Women’s Center, nor do they meet the caliber exhibited by the final round of candidates, all of whom held doctoral or professional degrees.
Though the university insists that such changes will not degrade the autonomy of the Women’s Center, such assertions are unreasonable as the Women’s Center will lose staffing as well as vital connections to the faculty of the university. Regardless, the Women’s Center will suffer because of this decision, and each center requires as much personal attention and support as possible. As a relatively new center, the Office of LGBTQI Life certainly needs to have complete focus from its director if we are to ever see the changes we expected at the time of its creation.
Similarly, the Women’s Center needs full-time staffing in order to effectively and efficiently continue its impressive work. We have made so much progress in the past few years, and although a basic understanding of the mutual struggles of women and LGBT individuals is crucial to understanding the plight of marginalized people and for progress as a whole, conflation of the two is not in our best interests. As such, I fear the statement we are making - especially with reference to prospective students and the broader field of higher education - is a negative one.
Though gender and sexuality are inextricably linked conceptually, we cannot merge them on an institutional level as it will only detract from reconciliation, understanding, and embrace by the mainstream. I fear that this action may place limitations on the Women's Center as well as on the LGBT Office. Our campus needs equal advocacy for the LGBT community and for women’s issues. My fervent hope is that women's issues will be addressed with the fullness of the university's time, energy, and understanding; I truly believe it deserves as much.
Former president of the Vanderbilt Lambda Association