Caryn McTighe Musil
“If Women Were a Country...”
Caryn McTighe Musil, director of the Program on the Status and Education of Women, senior scholar, and director of Civic Learning and Democracy Initiatives, Association of American Colleges and Universities
At the close of the 2012 Summer Olympics, sports writer Sally Jenkins reflected in the Washington Post on the stunning achievements of women athletes from around the world. “If women were a country,” she observed, “they would lead the medal chart.” She went on to note that among the three countries that typically dominate the games—the United States, China, and Russia—“women outmedaled men.” These victories reflected the same dogged persistence that led to women’s increased participation in Olympic events. According to Jenkins, in 1984, 24 percent of athletes were women, but by 2012 that share had nearly doubled to 44 percent. While the playing field is not yet equal, women athletes have propelled themselves to an arena worthy of their talents.
As I write my last director’s column for the final issue of On Campus with Women, an effort that has brought an assuring rhythm to my life much like that of the four-year Olympic cycle, competing against the odds seems a fitting metaphor. For forty-one years, we at AAC&U and our readers on college and university campuses have run a race together for greater gender equity and inclusion across higher education. In her column in this issue, Carol Geary Schneider assures readers that she intends for AAC&U to keep running the race for years to come. But OCWW, which has served for so long as coach, cheerleading squad, and broadcaster, will no longer be witness to those strivings. When AAC&U began publishing OCWW over four decades ago, women were moving into an academic world that wasn’t sure it wanted them and did not know what to do with them. Many in academia also wondered what difference women would make once they were there. That difference, of course, has been and will continue to be as potentially transformative as the change women’s participation has made in the Olympic games.
Academic Women Olympians
I began teaching at LaSalle University in 1971, one year after the university began admitting women. At the time, only 20 percent of LaSalle students were female. The athletes among them—some, perhaps, aspiring Olympians themselves—lived on the margins. Systematically underfinanced, they had access to athletic facilities only when men weren’t using them and had to transport themselves to and from events without university support. No one expected them to win anything.
Similarly, when AAC&U hired Bernice (Bunny) Sandler to establish the Project (now Program) on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) in 1971, no one was quite sure what to expect. Title IX had not yet passed, and women’s studies was taught on only a few campuses. A mere 3 percent of college presidents were women, and almost all of them headed women’s colleges (Musil 2002). But Bunny and the women whose work she featured in On Campus with Women had a different vision for higher education, one that aligned with a directive provided by Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954): “Keep on moving, keep on insisting, keep on fighting injustice” (quoted in Smithsonian Institution 2008). After graduating from Oberlin College as one of the first African American woman to earn a college degree, Terrell went on to march for suffrage and civil rights, founded and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women, and compelled Washington, DC, restaurants to serve black customers.
At AAC&U in the 1970s and 1980s, Bunny Sandler was following Terrell’s example, throwing lifelines to people like me who were teaching or working in colleges and universities. We typically were few in number, had limited access to marked pathways to leadership or recognition, and barely had a language to describe either our experiences or our ambitions. During my early years as a young professor seeking to help create a more inclusive institution, I knew nothing of AAC&U beyond the research, resources, and networks that Bunny Sandler and her staff were providing those of us in the trenches. Bunny translated what Title IX and other new equity legislation meant for women, countering resistance to implementing reforms with stories of women defying opposition. She gave us words—“chilly climate”—to describe how students could be undercut in classes and women professionals undermined on campus. She underscored the importance of mentoring, organizing, and producing research about women’s status in academia, including through a series on women of color in academe that helped us white women better understand how marginalization was compounded for women of color. I was able to complete this unfinished series when I was appointed in 1992 as AAC&U’s senior research associate and PSEW director.
Continuing the Marathon Race
On becoming PSEW’s director, I was humbled and honored to carry on in new ways the coach’s mantle that Bunny had worn so ably. I came to AAC&U after six years as director of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), where I had learned the fuller scope of AAC&U’s work when I was invited to head a women’s studies task force in a twelve-discipline project to examine the organizing principles of the major. In that project, led by Carol Geary Schneider, participating task forces met within and across disciplines for over two years, each producing a discipline-specific report. Project participants also conducted a survey designed to reveal how well students were learning to be critical, creative, and responsible thinkers and change agents. When we compared findings across the disciplines, women’s studies turned out to be the gold medal winner.
I first came to AAC&U in 1991 as an AAC&U fellow, charged with completing an NWSA Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) project working with seven campuses to explore the role of women’s studies in student learning. The project resulted in three publications copublished in 1992 by AAC&U and NWSA: The Courage to Question: Women’s Studies and Student Learning, an accompanying executive summary of its findings, and Students at the Center: Feminist Assessment. That set of publications served as a headlamp guiding PSEW work for the next two decades, illuminating gender’s role as a principal interpretive lens of analysis across disciplines and issues, historically and in contemporary settings, at both local and global levels.
PSEW took that lens into the sciences, the disciplines most resistant to women’s “encroachment.” First we invited Angela Ginorio to produce the monograph Warming the Climate for Women in Academic Science (1995), which was followed by a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant on women and scientific literacy. We worked with teams of scientists and non-scientists at ten campuses to explore how to introduce concepts about gender and women into the content and pedagogy of STEM disciplines, and how to introduce feminist science studies into non-science fields. It is heartening to know that Kelly Mack, who previously directed the NSF ADVANCE program on women faculty in the sciences, now runs AAC&U’s Project Kaleidoscope initiative on undergraduate learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Her article for this issue of OCWW makes clear that she will be asking critical questions about who is teaching in the STEM disciplines and with what success, especially with regard to underrepresented students of color.
Advancing Through Teamwork
With Mary Church Terrell’s “keep on moving, keep on insisting, keep on fighting injustice” echoing loudly, PSEW has also collaborated during the last twenty-one years with sister higher education associations and others to organize, sponsor research, and advocate for full equality for women and full inclusion for all people in the opportunities that higher education provides. Three partners have been longstanding: the American Council on Education’s Office of Women, now known as the Office of Inclusive Excellence; the National Council for Research on Women, featured in this issue’s Data Connection; and HERS: Higher Education Resource Services, whose director Judith White contributed an article to this final issue. Over the years, we have brought each other into our projects, served on each other’s boards and commissions, featured each other’s organizations in conferences and publications, and coproduced and disseminated key research on women and gender. Together, we sought to create an Olympic team equipped to tackle wide-ranging issues.
Our habit of collaborating across women’s groups culminated in a millennium conference, the National Initiative for Women in Higher Education. This complex, action-oriented meeting was the brainchild of the University of Minnesota’s then-associate vice president for Multicultural Affairs and Academic Affairs, Rusty Barceló, now president of Northern New Mexico College. In 2000, the conference brought one thousand women to the university’s Minneapolis campus while linking by teleconference to three simultaneous regional conferences and approximately two hundred other sites. Conference participants created seventy-seven recommendations for a twenty-first-century agenda for women in higher education. Those recommendations—focused on Teaching/Learning/Research, Work/Life, Partnerships/Outreach, and Leadership in a New Century—were a map for the course still to be run in our own Olympic Games for gender equity.
I represented AAC&U on the conference’s steering committee, and PSEW eventually housed the implementation phase of the resulting national agenda. AAC&U has also provided the administrative home for Campus Women Lead (CWL), a multicultural alliance designed to implement the conference’s recommendations about leadership by mobilizing women across differences to create more inclusive institutions. For ten years, CWL has contributed regularly to OCWW and offered intensive one- and two-day campus-based workshops as well as shorter workshops embedded in conferences hosted by AAC&U and others. AAC&U Senior Fellow Patricia Lowrie, whose work at Michigan State University is highlighted in this issue’s In Brief column, has served as CWL’s visionary and generative chair during the majority of the group’s existence.
Finally, because no other organization was doing the important work of tracking women’s progress along the entire educational pipeline, AAC&U produced a status report on women’s progress in higher education in 2008. While proudly marking significant advances, A Measure of Equity identified several areas that needed and continue to need immediate attention: the status of men of color in higher education, socioeconomic inequities, work–life balance, women’s participation in STEM, the leadership gap, and presidential leadership to promote inclusive excellence.
On Campus with Women Does Its Final Lap
At the center of all this activity, On Campus with Women was our timekeeper and scribe. For forty-one years, it has been higher education’s most consistent and comprehensive source of information about women’s influence in leadership, the curriculum, and the overall campus climate for inclusive excellence.
We have had a series of spectacular editors during my twenty-one-year oversight of the newsletter, but four deserve special note for their significant intellectual contributions and their generous gifts as writers: Debra Humphreys, now AAC&U’s vice president for policy and public engagement, who brought her critical eye as a feminist scholar; Susan Reiss, who brought an experienced journalist’s polish to the publication; Nadia Steinzor, who brought her capacity to connect the campus to the larger issues in the world; and finally Kathryn Peltier Campbell, our most long-serving editor, who honed the publication into a coherent, nuanced, glittering gem with a wide spectrum of authors. AAC&U is fortunate indeed that she will continue to edit Diversity & Democracy and help orchestrate even stronger coverage of gender issues across all AAC&U publications.
We are also happy to report that we are now in negotiations with Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library, where Bunny Sandler’s papers documenting the first twenty years of OCWW and PSEW now reside. We plan to expand this archival collection by adding the last twenty-one years of OCWW and PSEW accomplishments, gathering in one place the historical documentation about the two halves of AAC&U’s PSEW history to date. In that archival collection, OCWW will stand as a gold medal marking a forty-one-year race. Without records like these, we know all too well how easy it is to erase, distort, and dismiss women’s achievements.
In my new role as senior scholar and director of Civic Learning and Democracy Initiatives, I will be leading AAC&U’s strategic focus to advance education for civic learning and democratic engagement as an expected college outcome for all students. Collaboration will again be at the center of my work as I convene twelve national organizations and foundation partners to advance together the recommendations in A Crucible Moment: Civic Learning and Democracy’s Future (2012), a national report I authored on behalf of a broad constituency which was released at the White House last January. This new phase of my professional life is deeply informed by my earlier work in women’s studies, diversity and inclusion, and global learning. It continues to examine how to create strong diverse democracies where opportunities are equally shared. While I am stepping down as director of PSEW and senior editor of OCWW, I have no intention of abandoning my lifelong commitment to women achieving full equity in higher education—and everywhere else. That struggle has been and will continue to be one of democracy’s most important marathons. So men and women, lace up your sneakers. We still have some laps to run to get the gold.
Jenkins, Sally. 2012. “Women’s Olympic Success: A Flood that Began as a Trickle.” Washington Post, August 12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/womens-olympic-success-a-flood-that-began-as-a-trickle/2012/08/12/2799c9ba-e4a2-11e1-8f62-58260e3940a0_story.html.
Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2002. “A Graceful, Fearless Leap Into the Air.” On Campus with Women 32 (1). http://www.aacu.org/ocww/volume32_1/director.cfm.
Smithsonian Institution. 2008. “Freedom’s Sisters.” Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Exhibition brochure.