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State of the Profession: Beyond Sexual Violence

By Rana Jaleel

Recently, a wave of student protests against sexual violence has roiled campuses nationwide. This activism has reinvigorated discussion of sexual safety on campus and prompted redoubled federal efforts to ensure that colleges and universities comply with the law that prohibits sex discrimination in higher education: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. In response, campuses across the country have established offices devoted solely to maintaining compliance with Title IX and adjudicating claims. Yet this renewed attention to Title IX has produced a mixed record. Title IX administrators from the Department of Education and within institutions have often failed to punish gross and repeated instances of sexual harassment and in some instances have sought to punish protected academic speech. The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, an AAUP report to be published in final form this June, delves into recent cases, documenting threats to academic freedom and governance and even the exacerbation of gender-based and other inequities on campus.

These unsettling outcomes have resulted in large part from a diminished interpretation of the scope of Title IX protections and from the organizational and management structure of the university itself. While popularly synonymous with protections from sexual violence, harassment, and speech, the legislation in fact takes a much broader view of what sex discrimination may entail. Title IX covers ten key areas with regard to women’s educational opportunities: access to higher education, athletics, career training and education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, the learning environment, math and science education, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology. A narrow view of what counts as successful Title IX enforcement can frustrate a comprehensive accounting of inequality on campus.

This is not to deny the prevalence and severity of sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Sexual vulnerability, however, is not the sole measure for assessing gender inequality, nor can it be separated from the broader social dynamics of campus life—or life beyond the proverbial quad. As Harvard law professor Janet Halley observes, a segmented approach to sex discrimination— typified by single-purpose Title IX offices—promotes partial and legalistic analyses of the problem’s nature and scope, especially when there is no corresponding institutional mandate to consider racial or LGBTQ inequality.

The reduction of “women’s issues” or gender inequality to sexual violence and sexual speech becomes particularly significant in a system whose organizational model of management and governance is increasingly entrepreneurial. In part as a result of reductions in state and federal support, a cultural shift in thinking about the value and function of higher education has occurred. As the AAUP report details, the entrepreneurial model “prioritizes administrative managerial methods and interests; evaluates and eliminates departments and disciplines according to borrowed business metrics of economic efficiency; and promotes a commercial model of universities in which student satisfaction as ‘education consumers’ is paramount.” In this context, well-meaning attempts to address the sexual dimensions of sex discrimination can allow administrations to advance a commitment to gender justice and a respect for student experience while simultaneously permitting employment and other practices that undermine the realization of that commitment and belie that respect.

Gender studies, African American studies, ethnic studies, and other allied disciplines owe their existence to student activism and popular protest. These fields of study are at their best when they are deeply invested in the social movements that brought them into being. Concepts like sex discrimination and race discrimination were first forged at the intersections of feminist, queer, race-based, and other social justice movements. Administrative and legal offices that now interpret the meaning of sex discrimination would do well to remember and revisit the multifaceted origins of the terms. Yet gender studies and allied programs increasingly find themselves on the business end of the chopping block. So it is that as institutions rightfully affirm their commitment to end sexual violence on campus, they may also devastate the loci of research, teaching, and community engagement best equipped to address social inequality. For this reason, colleges and universities must return to an educational mission that includes a firm commitment to gender studies and allied disciplines that foster the interdisciplinary teaching and research necessary to address the many manifestations of social inequality, both on campus and beyond.

Rana Jaleel is assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Women in the Academic Profession.


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