How COVID-19 is Devastating Women’s Studies Programs Across the U.S.

It is clear the pandemic has bolstered support for a neoliberal framework for higher education, where certain forms of labor go unrecognized and the financial bottom line takes precedence over all else. It is also clear the most affected entities in this crisis are, unsurprisingly, gender and women’s studies, ethnic studies, Latinx studies, Asian American studies, African American studies and Indigenous studies programs.

How COVID-19 is Devastating Women's Studies Programs Across the U.S.
The questions of whose labor is valuable and whose is expendable and what labor counts as productive is central to how WGSS and other interdisciplinary programs are faring. (Snappygoat / Creative Commons)

During the summer months of 2020, the National Women’s Studies Association, the leading feminist academic organization in the U.S., collected data from gender, women’s and sexuality studies programs and women’s and gender equity centers across the nation to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our constituents and member institutions. This data was compiled and translated into a data brief.

Offering a snapshot of the devastating impact of the public health crisis on feminist studies programs, the document also highlights the organizing of faculty, staff and students who are pushing back against austerity measures that threaten their programs and centers.  

Written by former NWSA president and professor of history at Barnard College, Premilla Nadasen; Jennifer Ash, associate director of NWSA; and Briona Jones, NWSA governing council member, this project—which includes voluntary data from 72 programs and centers—demonstrates that while the pandemic brought on threats of budget cuts, the austerity measures threatened are nothing new to feminist studies.


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It is clear the pandemic has simply bolstered support for a neoliberal framework for higher education; a framework where certain forms of labor go unrecognized and the financial bottom line takes precedence over everything else.

It is also clear that the most affected entities in this crisis are, unsurprisingly, gender and women’s studies, ethnic studies, Latinx studies, Asian American studies, African American studies and Indigenous studies programs. These programs grew out of student and faculty protest in the 1960s and 1970s and forever changed higher education.  These programs remain steadfastly committed to social justice as a foundational part of their pedagogy and research and are often critical of the ways in which neoliberal economics influence policy and decision making both on and off campuses.

Given this historical precedence and unwavering commitment, it is also not surprising that faculty, staff, and students have resisted these COVID-era budget cuts, have demanded measures of support for students and employees, and have centered the most marginalized in campus communities in their demands. As the data brief reports, they have articulated exactly how “austerity measures disproportionately harm those who already have the least, the multiple obstacles and lack of support for students, and the unreasonable work demands on faculty. They see these issues are interconnected rather than isolated.”

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, academia also witnessed an uptick in protest around state violence as faculty and students participated in national strikes in the U.S. and Canada. With #ScholarStrike and #ScholarStrikeCanada, faculty withheld their labor in solidarity with the communities most affected by policing and the violence that comes with it. Their analysis of both state violence and university austerity were intertwined in withholding their labor. As the data brief reports, “In a historical moment when the White House issues an executive order that seeks to undermine the fundamental core of teaching and learning in our fields of study, faculty are reasserting the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of anti-racist education as part of the core mission of higher education.”

Read the WGSS Programs During COVID: A Data Brief from NWSA here.

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About

Jennifer Ash, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of the National Women's Studies Association.