On May 12, interim Senior Vice Chancellor John Masterson quietly signaled the closure of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at USC Upstate. The City Paper reported on the decision the following day, resulting in a great deal of national attention. On May 14, I talked with Masterson. The question I asked him: Was this a strategic effort to conciliate state legislators or did it emerge from profound ignorance?
Masterson had nothing but praise for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. He said, “The center has done a marvelous, marvelous job to help Upstate be a welcoming place.” But he continued, “I think much of that work is done.”
The work is done?
For the last four months state legislators have been openly and vocally homophobic. They’ve called representations of LGBTQ people “offensive” and “pornographic.” They’ve claimed the university was “promoting a lifestyle” when a lesbian comedian was scheduled to perform on campus. And they’ve fought to cut the budgets of both USC Upstate and the College of Charleston for offering students reading material which acknowledges LGBTQ people. Given that this is the public discourse from our state legislature since February, how can Masterson believe “that work is done”?
On May 12, Masterson told the center’s director Merri Lisa Johnson that the facility was being closed. The conversation was held privately after commencement and after many students had returned home. In fact, administrators didn’t make a public announcement until after the City Paper reported on it. It’s easy to interpret this post-graduation divulgence as an unsuccessful effort to avoid media and student uproar.
However, Masterson insists that this timing was a coincidence, one he admitted was “horrible.” But faculty both on and off campus have found the explanation hard to believe.
Esther Godfrey, an English professor at USC Upstate, said that the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies was “one of the few resources — a safe place — that faculty women had on campus.” She adds, “For it to be announced this way, without a discussion, at the end of the year, feels like a betrayal.” Another faculty member said, “To say I’m disgusted is an understatement.”
This faculty member also explained to me that “the center was a sign of a positive and progressive workplace for faculty and staff and a safe haven for students — gone now with no input from the faculty, staff, and students it served.”
This idea of a safe haven came up again and again in my conversations, as did the phrase “hostile work environment.” Many faculty have experienced USC Upstate as a space that can be frightening, so much so that they didn’t want to be identified in my writing about this issue.
Indeed, it’s unclear to what extent closing the center is a budget issue versus an issue of “coherence and consistency,” as Masterson told me. The reasons given to explain the cut are inconsistent. Masterson told me explicitly this wasn’t a financial decision, but he talked about the budget throughout our conversation, and virtually everything written about the decision mentions money. In a press release, Chancellor Tom Moore wrote, “We are reviewing programs and structures across the institution, and as a result, we are reducing administrative costs and applying the savings toward increased effectiveness and efficiency.”
In a letter to his faculty on May 15, Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, referred to the center as an “unfortunate casualty in the ongoing funding challenges present in public higher education in South Carolina.”
And yet Masterson told me the closure will save $44,975 — in the context of a university, not a particularly substantial savings. In fact, the interim vice chancellor explained that there were many ways to cut the budget of Upstate much more substantially. Yet when faculty met with him on May 15 and explicitly offered to run the center for free, he refused.
Masterson also stressed to me this decision is about creating uniformity among minors. The African-American studies and international studies programs don’t have centers, so women’s and gender shouldn’t, either. And yet, Upstate’s Center for Childhood Advocacy Studies isn’t being considered for dissolution.
So why is this happening?
As I’ve said previously, one of the faculty members who spoke with me characterized the closure of the USC Upstate Center for Women’s and Gender Studies as an act of retribution. I’m not sure that’s accurate. It could simply be a decision made by an administration filled with privileged white men who simply haven’t thought about the needs of others — and who aren’t willing to. These are men who believe that sexism, racism, and homophobia no longer need to be addressed, no matter how many faculty — and professors, reporters, and administrators nationwide — disagree. There are men who won’t question their belief that “the work is done.”
Which explanation is worse?