After 20 years, UNC Charlotte’s women’s and gender studies department is still hoping to establish their own major. It was originally announced that the major would be offered in the fall 2019 semester, but by then, the issue had not even come up on the Board of Governors’ agenda. Now, the earliest the B.A. in women’s and gender studies will be available is fall 2020.
Coursework for the program, which was originally just women’s studies, began in the 1970s. The concentration in women’s studies was approved in 1984 after years of negotiations led by Dr. Ann Carver, who also taught in the English department and black studies program. The minor began in the 1990s and has grown 330% since 2005 with a total of 300 enrolled students today.
The request to plan the major began in 2014. In the 2017-18 school year, UNC Charlotte administration approved it and submitted a request to establish in Jan. 2018. The second request was approved and sent to the UNC System Office by Jan. 2019.
The UNC System approved the proposal with overwhelming support in April 2019 and sent it off to the Board of Governors, where it remains. The major must first be approved by the Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs before the entire Board can vote. It was originally set on the committee’s September agenda, but still has not been discussed.
Progress may have been stunted by an anonymous letter discouraging members of the Board of Governors from approving the major.
“It had a lot of false information, saying we hired somebody to create the proposal for us. It tried to paint the unit as being overly-radical. It turns activism into a bad word and doesn’t capture what we do. It’s fear-mongering,” said Director Dr. Janaka Lewis.
The letter criticized specific classes, like “Books for Girls” and “Modern Gay America.”
When asked whether she thinks the letter is the cause for the Board of Governors’ delay, Lewis said, “I definitely think it didn’t help the vote. I think anyone who may have been on the fence could have potentially been swayed.”
The Bachelor of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies (WGST) is a 33-credit degree program that will be delivered in-person with some online courses available and include two optional concentrations: “Gender, Health, and Culture” and “Gender, Diversity, and Leadership.” The program will be interdisciplinary, and offer many cross-listed courses with departments like political science, Africana studies and biology.
Lewis says that recently, the marketability of the program has been called into question.
“I would love to say every major is being considered in terms of jobs, but I think there’s been a special attention to what types of jobs students can get with a women’s and gender studies program. Our minors are in corporate, nonprofit, STEM, law. Students can do whatever they want with the major.”
Lewis added that the major is interdisciplinary and impacts every aspect of society. “Going through this program can help reduce harm at corporate levels and in society and help others acclimate. It’s not just about what we’re doing in a bubble. It’s about what we’re doing in society. There’s a stereotype that we’re just a breeding ground for women running wild.”
UNC Charlotte explained in a statement why they support the proposed women’s and gender studies major. “Currently, UNC Charlotte has 300 students enrolled in the women and gender studies minor, a program which has outpaced the growth of the University during the past decade. Based on survey data and third-party research, there is high student interest for a major coupled with strong external demand in the Charlotte region for the interdisciplinary skills and leadership competencies emphasized in the program.
“Employers rank the ability to lead and work with diverse populations as a priority for potential employees, and this proposed major would allow the University to prepare students for the changing business landscape by equipping them to recognize the current systems in place to help advance greater diversity in leadership roles in the workplace.
“In addition, similar institutions in North Carolina, including five universities within the UNC System, offer a major in women and gender studies to meet the changing demands of the future workforce.”
The writing, rhetoric and digital studies major was proposed at the same time as the women’s and gender studies major but was passed by the Board of Governors in September. Lewis says the two departments worked closely on their proposals.
Even after the major is approved, it has to be filed with the Department of Education, which can take up to 6 months. If it’s not approved, it will have to go through all of the steps for approval again; this time under the supervision of a new UNC Charlotte chancellor.
“I think the responsibility of a governing board to its institutions is to do whatever is in the best interest of the students and the institution, and I think everyone has already said that that’s the case,” said Lewis.