Second sex centre set to be first to go

February 28, 1997

Academics at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute in Montreal are feeling very much like the "second sex" now that their feminist research centre has been targeted for closure.

Concordia University in Montreal has proposed that the 19-year-old institute, named after the French philosopher who died in 1986, should close. In an internal paper, the institute was named along with 36 other programmes to be eliminated, reduced or integrated in a proposed downsizing of the 25,000-student university.

A campaign to rally support and storm Concordia with email, faxes and letters of support has begun. Concordia student Monique Kanters sent out a notice on the Internet for all "those who have an interest in the future of women's studies".

"The closure of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute would be a tragic loss for the women of Montreal and for women everywhere," she wrote.

The centre is used by all four of the city's universities and has invited speakers such as exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and American historian Joan Scott.

American feminist Gloria Steinem, who donated her speaking fee to the institute when she was invited to speak four years ago, is writing a letter of support for the institute to Concordia rector Frederick Lowy.

Ms Steinem bemoaned the trend she sees in higher education, where when faced with cutbacks, administrators are quick to axe newer programmes such as black, native and feminist studies.

"Affirmative action should not only apply when hiring but be appropriate when cutting back," she told The THES from her office in New York.

Institute principal Kaarina Kailo said Concordia's plan to close the institute and transfer women's studies into another department will not only water down the spectrum of feminist thought the centre has attracted but says gains through its outreach, especially its work with native women and sexual abuse groups, will be lost.

The institute also houses a documentation centre and publishes a 150-page journal.

Ms Kailo says she does not know what Concordia expects to save by getting rid of the institute, which employs only four full-time and two half-time employees.

"There is no academic or financial rationale for closing the institute," she said, adding that one of the courses taught, an introduction to women's studies, has an 80-strong waiting list.

Concordia vice rector Jack Lightstone, who wrote the report, says he recommended that the institute "should be closed", but said no decision had been made.

The report, he says, will be revised when it goes to faculty committees and then to senate where it will be debated. Final decisions will be made in May.

"What we are not going to do is conduct this dialogue in public," said Dr Lightstone.

Concordia is grappling with Can$22 million (Pounds 10 million) in government cuts to its operating budget, which now stands at Can$179 million.

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