“…a space for intellectual work"


Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2004-07

I’ll tell one story that I think is really important in terms of this history, because I don’t know if anybody else would remember it this way. I became director and we had our first Executive Committee meeting. I said, “Okay. Here I am. What are we going to do?” Somebody asked, “So, Lila, what would you like to do?” I was like, “Me? Oh, I’ll just do whatever you want. I’m just taking care of this thing.” Then I said, “Well, there’s one little thing that I really think was sad that it’s gone.” There was this thing called the Bunting Institute, which was an advanced study center at Radcliffe that was a very important institution for women scholars in the old days. It was for, just before tenure, junior women scholars to have a year to work on their books. It was interdisciplinary. They had a wonderful weekly seminar. I never got to go there, but it was life changing for all the women who had ever partaken in it.

I said, it’s really sad because it closed. It was merged into Harvard and became the Radcliffe Institute, which has men and women. It’s just a normal advanced study center, which is fine, but that was a very special thing because it recognized the special problems women face in the academy. I said, “It’s really too bad. It’d be nice to have something like that here, at Columbia. Why can’t we have an advanced study center?”

We talked a lot about it and we said: In the twenty-first century, you don’t have it just for women anymore. We don’t want to compete with other units that are kind of struggling at Columbia around race, like IRAAS [Institute for Research on African American Studies]; and CSER [Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race] was just starting. Why don’t we do it with them around the question of difference? Gender is one of them but there are others. All of these units are sort of organized around identity categories, which we theoretically don’t like, but they’re all people who struggle. Scholars who struggle in the academy, who aren’t mainstream, who work on things that are not as valued, who have a lot of demands on their time by students of color or women who turn to them. They do a lot of extra work. So shouldn’t they have a space for their intellectual work, and not just always doing bureaucratic things together and fighting for resources? A place to nurture our scholarship?

That was my idea. We worked on it and we had the ARC report. Luckily, we had the right people come in from outside who were shocked that we didn’t have a research institute. So they supported us and we got the Center for the Study of Social Difference.