Category Archives: Interdisciplinary Leadership

“Why is there not the political will at Columbia to make gender issues central?”


Miriam Champion Professor of History
IRWGS Director, 1989-94

Why is there not the political will at Columbia to make gender issues central to what they call general education at Columbia? I think that the problem is not that we haven’t institutionalized the study of gender in a way that makes it necessary that people take account of it. I mean, I think that’s part of the problem. Certainly at Columbia, it’s a big problem. I think it’s the political culture in the United States. I think that it’s both toxic and important. Race is a bigger issue in terms of what people think they have to think about as part of how this democracy works or doesn’t work. Social inequality in terms of income is now a bigger issue. The issues of gender are pretty far down the list, and some of that—you know, the backlash won. It maybe didn’t conquer, but it’s held its ground. Some of that has to do with the limitations of the women’s movement…

Now there’s feminist theory that is much more sophisticated, but that hasn’t been part of the conversation. I actually don’t have a good answer. I can describe what the problems are, but I don’t know quite how to fix them. It’s a refusal to consider the systematic social structure that produces the inequality. It’s so easy to talk about in individual terms. That’s a little bit the problem with feminism is that it’s not seen as—gender hierarchy isn’t seen as structural so much as a question of whether these women have these rights. I think we’d have to decide exactly where to pick our fight. I think if we just start screaming, we lose. So if we could mobilize around a particular issue that forced change—but I don’t know what that issue would be. You have to be able to get their ear. In other words, they have to take it seriously. It has to be an issue they, they, take seriously, or you won’t be heard. I think maybe it is time for us to be bad girls. We’re powerful now. There are too many of us.

“…the logic of response would have been very different”


Associate Professor of Sociology

I absolutely think that the filing of a complaint has meant that the structure of response to gender-based misconduct and sexual assault on campus, overall, has been one of legal compliance to the law rather than systems of justice. Broader systems of justice. So, conceptualizing victim’s justice, for example, which may be less punitive to people who’ve been accused. It may have a very different form. I don’t know that the students were wrong to file the complaint because I don’t know that they would’ve gotten as much attention or institutional response had they not filed the complaint. I also think that it’s important to recall that we’re being led by the president of this university, who is a lawyer. I think in many ways, his response may have been this anyway because a legal framework is the framework that he’s most likely to fall back upon.

My assessment, in thinking that it’s correct that we’re pretty bound, now, to a legal interpretation of Title IX and gender-based misconduct, is that it’s not necessarily the case that the reason for that is the filing of the complaint, although I certainly think it contributed to it. I think alternate things that could have happened would be, for example, imagine if instead of now being run by lawyers—I think the university hired nine lawyers to be investigative and response units to these things—they hired a team of community organizers, psychologists, social workers to respond. I think that then, the logic of response would have been very different. It would have been less about adherence to the law and making sure that our response is consistent with both the requirements of Title IX and the vision articulated within the “Dear Colleague” letter of the Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights. Instead, could have included all kinds of understandings tied to psychological services for victims and for perpetrators, tied to community-based models of justice.

“This is a political history…”


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

I think our motivation for getting this oral history project is to document how we did our work because this needed to be done here. We’re all in it for a much more political reason and we want that documented…the story we want to tell is the story of how we built this gender institute and kept it a good place and what kind of difference we were trying to make at Columbia. That’s the story we wanted to tell that should be documented because that might all get lost. It’s all, “I remember that Jean [Howard] said this and they did that.”

We want to tell the story of this political history of people who are committed to a certain project and work together to make that happen. It’s also intellectual, but it’s not personal. It is gratifying. These are people I really love and respect, and, of course, because it’s so collegial and such a rare collegial space here, I love that. I cherish that. It is personally meaningful that I go into the room and everybody who walks in, I feel happy to see them. You don’t feel that way everywhere you go. Everybody has goodwill and good faith towards it. That’s rare but partly, I think, because we’re not competing for any resources and there’s a political project as there is a problem—when we have all white men running this institution that we all live in and we know the women’s salaries are lower and we know the women never get to be on Riverside Drive [indicating preferred faculty housing], they get housing elsewhere. You see the inequalities so we’ve got to do something about that, as well as intellectual work of really building a scholarly field and working in it.

“…students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
Director of IRWGS, 2007-08, 2015

Well, the field is changing. Students are changing and I think the curriculum is changing as well. I mean, the biggest shift, curricularly, is that we’ve added “Sexuality” to our name. I think we’ve always been doing sexuality and we are the place at Columbia, certainly in Arts & Sciences, that’s doing sexuality. We’ve been trying to appoint a faculty member in that field, but short of that, we have a number of people who teach it and who have come forward and been willing to teach it. I think that move towards sexuality has been a very big one. The global focus is getting more urgent. I think it already was when I first arrived here and at Columbia. IRWGS appointed Lila Abu-Lughod and Beth Povinelli, so they’ve brought that in and Roz Morris was the director when I first was hired. I think we’ve had that very much at the forefront of our mission, but it takes constant care to maintain it and to enlarge it. We’ve tried to appoint somebody in Latin American Studies, for example. That didn’t succeed but we’re hoping to do, again, this constant vigilance to try to have course offerings that are broad in that way. That’s been some of the shift.

I think what I’ve seen also is a shift in student culture. I feel like recently, really, in the last two or three years, students are just more activist. Changing things in the world seems more urgent to them. I think the kinds of sophistication about analyses of issues of social difference has just been so much more at the forefront of students’ thinking, both undergraduate and graduate. That’s been a shift from the first decade of this century when I think fighting the war was a big issue, and then the economic depression, I think, made all of us more discouraged and probably students more quiescent.

We’re doing this interview on the heels of the protests in Baltimore, so I think we’re seeing something erupt that has been building and it has to do with just tremendous economic inequalities. I’d like to think that students are beginning to realize what it costs their parents for them to be getting this education and to take a look at what that privilege means and who is excluded from it. I think that’s part of it. In terms of gender and sexuality, I think just this larger conversation that’s been taking place in the US that comes out of the gay marriage debate––I think the country’s become so polarized around every question that students are being drawn into some of these questions, whether they want to or not.

I don’t think it’s because the curriculum has changed. I think that students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum, which has not necessarily changed. At the same time, there are a lot of initiatives that are beginning at Columbia, for example, the Justice Initiative and teaching in prisons. I mean, that’s kind of new here and the opportunities to do more of that, more work with the community, public humanities––I think those spaces are opening up and I think students are seeing those opportunities.

“JFAB: it’s there to advocate for junior faculty…”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Director, 2014

Basically [the Junior Faculty Advisory Board, JFAB] is there to advocate for junior faculty directly to the administration, and create a sense of solidarity, or be a consulting board too—an advisory board for junior faculty and on behalf of junior faculty. I’m happy to say that its mission has changed partially due to the success of a lot of the initiatives. So we wanted a mentoring program, and it was implemented as of the fall. We wanted topping off of prestigious fellowships and grants, and we got that. It’s being implemented for the junior faculty, and even senior faculty, as of this fall [2015]. We wanted more research funds to be dedicated to junior faculty.

Housing and childcare are two banes of our existence. It’s funny, I was just on the phone yesterday with somebody who found out his wife is pregnant with twins, and they’re in a one-bedroom apartment. How does he get a larger apartment? People starting families, not having any place to do—some of them not having offices—this is a person also who doesn’t even have his own office: How are junior faculty expected to meet our expectations of them? These are things that have little to do with gender, but just have everything to do with seniority and the structure here. Sometimes they have to do with gender in other ways, especially given childcare and the burdens of childcare, or family care for elderly parents, and how often that falls on women, statistically. It’s, sadly, still a norm.

Junior faculty take on an incredible burden in terms of service. Their warm bodies are used in ways that often some senior faculty members’ aren’t, because they have the privilege of being able to opt out at times. We had already had this discussion as a committee before. Suddenly [one administrator] says, “Oh, well, maybe we should change Manhattanville to have more junior faculty housing then.” I said, “Yes. While you’re at it, get the infant care center at the ground floor.” I’m trying to get them [people in the provost’s office] to think in these broader terms that will actually—and, like the school district. Do you realize that the junior faculty might not want to move up there because of the school district, District Five, which is not the best of options for public schools? Now you’re putting the burden on them if they don’t want the public schools, then, to go into private schools. The private school tuition benefit that they provide hasn’t been updated since the ‘80s. It’s just a real financial disaster.

“…the institutional home of power women”


Associate Professor of Sociology

When Alondra [Nelson] first asked me about joining IRWGS, she said to me, “Well, one big advantage of joining is that you will meet the power women of the university.” The Jean Howards and Alice Kessler-Harrises of the university, chairs of departments, things like that. This is one of the institutional homes of the power women. She said, “We’re a pretty male department. It’s important for you to do this anyway, I think. You should really think about it.”

There was also a sense, I think, when Alondra took over, of a little bit—it’s hard to me to say, but—unease because it seemed as if it was a little rearrangement of the institution. I don’t know if there hadn’t been a lot of new people joining in previous years, but it seems like there’s just a lot of new people there, drawing from a wide range of places, scientists. Not all of them clearly do research on gender, women, and sexuality. Some of us are peripherally—like, it’s a secondary research project, or it’s a different kind of research. There’s stuff on men and masculinity. It’s also from, like I’d said, biology, but also a broader range of disciplines, so not as humanistic in its approach.

It’s an interesting shift because I think that the primary teaching that goes on in that department, in the institute, happens through the history/humanistic people, but the people who are making up the—like, I’ve never taught a course that was cross-listed with IRWGS. I suspect I’m not totally unique in that way. It’s strange, on the one hand, for me to be on the Executive Committee because of my very—what is it that I do for the institute? It’s not totally clear.I think that the bringing in of these new people has brought in new people, but I don’t know how much restructuring there’s been of the overall curriculum and place of the institute. The role that we have to play, I think, is still to be determined in terms of driving the institute forward in the years to come.

“…to expand the category of gender…”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

It was very productive for me to see that feminist studies begat queer studies, which enabled me to see African American studies differently. So I began to work in this field that’s now variously populated with really exciting young scholars. At that moment, I have to say, my work was met with some resistance. “Why, Marcellus, are you taking on yet another battle?” I got that. I got that. It just seemed to me that it was so productive to think about gender, to expand the category of gender, to expand the objects that the category of gender allows us to see anew. It was the logical consequence of the kind of work that I wanted to do, even though at times—I began lecturing widely on this moment in African American literature that was defined by the loss of writers at precisely the time in African American studies you began to see these communities of queer writers. The focus of our work is defined by trauma and loss. I did a lot of—that’s actually the moment which maybe began to be a bridge between my activism and my scholarship, thinking about people like Essex Hemphill and Melvin Dixon and Joe Beam, reading the works that began to be produced, like the anthology Brother to Brother by Essex, or Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston, and how gay men moved necessarily to the forefront of political struggles for African American men. Theoretically it made sense to think, how does gender shape how we think about men.

I’d been focusing on liberating women from the small spaces that men place them in and it became important to me to think about liberating men from those small spaces in which they place themselves. So, a more expansive notion of masculinity, a more supple notion of masculinity was important not just for women or for gay men, but for heterosexual men as well, a different kind of politics of liberation.

“How does intellectual history look different?”


William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies

I was having dinner one night with three colleagues who were historians at different institutions. Martha Jones, who had been a graduate student of Eric Foner’s here, Mia Bay, who taught at Rutgers, Barbara Savage, at University of Pennsylvania, and we were lamenting the way that the intellectual labors of Black women went ignored and under-appreciated and under-resourced. One of those laments over a bottle of wine. Then we thought, even the study of Black intellectuals, which was very much central to what IRAAS [Institute for Research in African American Studies] did, was impoverished when it came to Black women intellectuals. We decided, wouldn’t it be great to have some kind of a collaborative project where we figured out what work had already been done, and we also thought about where the voids were, and help to support scholars who were trying to do that work. So we organized a meeting, which was just a kind of information gathering meeting where we invited people who had either written histories of Black women intellectuals, biographies. Who was out there doing the work, and what did they feel like was needed?

We organized a meeting that was held at Rutgers, and then, eventually, after that meeting, we saw there was some interest and we applied for an NEH grant. A lot of work. We didn’t get it. Not a lot of the criticism, but some of the criticism was that we didn’t have enough representation of conservative intellectual women. That it wasn’t balanced. We were determined that we were going to do this project, and we’d do it on a shoestring if we had to. It wouldn’t be as big, it wouldn’t be as ambitious.

By that time, the Center for the Study of Social Difference had come up, and we presented the project to them and they funded it. What was great about their funding it is they gave us a set amount of money. IRAAS gave us money. Then we could take that to raise other money, to go to other institutions. Martha at University of Michigan, Barbara at University of Pennsylvania, Mia at Rutgers, and say, “This is the money that these Columbia centers and institutes have already given us. Can you ante up some?” All those institutions contributed to this working group, interdisciplinary, intergenerational institutions from public to private. We had people who were representative of small colleges, large universities, Black colleges, who formed this collective and really worked together as a working group on our projects and on our papers, holding several conferences.

Then we were able to use the resources that we got from the center to hold a big, international conference at the end. Because what we always wanted to do was put the work out there, but really put a call out there to say, here’s a place where you can do this kind of work. If you’re working on Black women intellectuals, you’re not working alone. We’re trying to figure this out. What does it look like? How does intellectual history look different? Who do we count as an intellectual? It’s not necessarily someone with a PhD from Oxford. Some of these women never had PhDs, but they had ideas that were important.

It was the kind of project that I just really love being a part of, because in terms of content, I learned so much. It supported my own work. It supported the work of people whose work I wanted to read. But institutionally, it did something, because we had these younger scholars who were going through the tenure process, and they were able to be mentored by senior scholars in the group, who were reading closely their work and writing letters for them. It brought the idea of intellectual history, of Black women’s intellectual history to all these campuses, graduate students. It did both work on the ground and work at the level of ideas. Institutional transformation on the ground and—

I think that’s what something like the center and IRWGS is best at doing. That what it does collectively is also transformative for a field, intellectually, but also institutionally. IRWGS has supplied leadership for the university. Jean [Howard]’s work with IRWGS, and then she’s the Vice Provost of Diversity or the chair of the English department. Alondra [Nelson] is now Dean of Social Science. That these are people who come from this small unit, and they are also the hardest working people I know.

“It was called the Office for Diversity Initiatives…”


George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities
IRWGS Director, 1997-99

While I was in the Huntington, writing away on my book, Martha [Howell] and Alice [Kessler-Harris] and Lila [Abu-Lughod] and a group of people at the institute, Susan Sturm in the Law School, decided to lobby Lee [Bollinger] to set up some kind of position in the provost’s office where somebody would be responsible for improving the statistics on women and minorities on this faculty. And he needed this position—they said, you’ve got to have somebody dedicated to it. If it’s everybody’s responsibility, nothing’s going to happen. They persuaded him, and because I had done the pipeline report, they thought I could do it. So when I came back, weirdly, I came right back into this newly-created position, which was the most terrifying event of my life because I had never run such a thing. What was it to be a vice provost?

I knew from the beginning—I was going to run this with the help of other faculty, because I would need their legitimacy very badly, and I’d be their labor power since we didn’t have any office. So I got this office with a conference room, thank God. Best resource I ever had was a conference room. It was called the Office for Diversity Initiatives.

I set up this committee of faculty advisors to help me decide what we would do. We immediately said, well, one thing we’re not going to do is do a diversity action plan, because that will take a year or two years, and I have a drawer full of diversity action plans from every other university, and they all look the same. The idea is not to have the plan, it’s to do something. So we dispensed with the two years of doing a diversity action plan, and we just started to do action. Do initiatives, do things. We knew the first thing we had to do was get target of opportunity money so that we could start hiring and make the faculty believe that there were actually going to be more women in the sciences and more diverse people in the disciplines. We hired, or helped to hire, twenty-three or twenty-four in the three-year period. It was a fabulous run of exquisite hiring, all done with the faculty completely involved and completely vetting everybody. Nobody was ever forced to take anybody, it was always choice. That was the big thing.

But this committee was so visionary, it also knew that we needed a work/life office. We didn’t have one at Columbia. You can’t hire women in the sciences if you don’t have any provision better than we did for childcare, and all kinds of things. So we set up a work/life office, we set up a HERC, which is a consortium with a lot of area schools so you put all your jobs online so that if you have somebody coming in who has a spouse and needs employment and you can’t do it at Columbia, you have this huge bank of jobs. We set all that up, got that running. We set up affinity groups so that Black faculty coming into this place would, in the first month, be greeted by Black faculty from all over the university, so that they would feel that they were people that they could turn to. We set up these dinners where we train search committees about how you do proactive diversity searches. It was so great because faculty led them and faculty presented the data and presented the research that we had done on implicit bias, and all kinds of things.

We read, as a committee, all this research to figure out what we thought was good research that would convince the rest of the faculty that what we were saying was true, so it was all either data-driven or research-driven. All of this we did in the three years.

“…a shared institutional history”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

Being involved in feminist issues at Columbia shaped my work in the way that’s probably the most profound, in a sense that my training had been very masculinist. Through sharing work with Susan [Winnett], or the mentorship with Carolyn [Heilbrun], and then getting involved in the work that Jean Howard and Martha Howell were beginning to do, and others certainly, I thought: why, in African American literary studies, aren’t we attending more to questions of how women might be writing differently, in terms of the construction of a racial subject? That was very important to me and it came from my association with people at Columbia. It wasn’t a part of my training as a scholar. I donated a lot of time to the politics of the institutionalization of feminist concerns at Columbia, but it helped to shape me as a scholar, so it was time that was really well spent.

The vision of feminism was far more heterogeneous than it had been at other institutions where these programs had developed earlier on. In that sense intellectually, theoretically there was a space for me, but also in terms of identity politics it made sense that African American Studies and women’s studies had a shared history, a shared institutional history. Just as some of these people had been very helpful to me in lobbying for African American studies, I felt that I wanted to be helpful to them.