BYU students decry demise of Women's Research Institute

Published: Friday, Nov. 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

PROVO — How does cutting an institution dedicated to studying women's issues promote greater women-centered research?

Such a restructuring will allow for more overall research money, Brigham Young University officials say, but a handful of BYU students and professors are still skeptical.

"The elimination of the Women's Research Institute affects a lot of people," said senior Kathryn Vaggalis, a women's studies minor. "It strikes a chord within us. A 31-year-old program suddenly cut without warning or publicity is kind of iffy, and we're trying to figure out the reason why."

Brigham Young University asserts that the recently announced reorganization and streamlining of the women's studies program, to take effect January 2010, will improve research and financial opportunities.

"The costs associated with running the Women's Research Institute can now be channeled into expanding the resources for research and creative … activities pertaining to women," said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.

The institute's budget will go toward a new, larger $25,000 annual grant for a faculty research project related to women's research, plus other, smaller grants to be distributed through the associate academic vice president's office for research.

Other former WRI budget funds, plus a small endowment, will fund the women's studies minor, Jenkins said.

But cutting the nationally respected institute to allocate more money to research doesn't make much sense to Vaggalis and the more than 1,700 other members of the Facebook group "Save BYU Women's Research Institute!"

"BYU is a great university, and they are respectful to their students," Vaggalis said. "However, we don't understand where this is coming from."

The change comes after a yearlong process, Jenkins said, in which a five-member interdisciplinary faculty committee reviewed the WRI, a common practice for every BYU institution every few years.

Faculty members were from the colleges of Sociology, Family, Home and Social Sciences, Education, Nursing and Life Sciences. The current director of the Women's Research Institute, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, was not on the committee, Jenkins said.

However, the committee met briefly with Ballif-Spanvill, said one of the committee members, Renata Forste, chairwoman of the sociology department and newly appointed director of the women's studies minor.

"Bonnie's done a fabulous job, but it's a lot for one person," Forste said.

Calls to the institute and Ballif-Spanvill were directed to Jenkins' office.

The streamlining, which was not done to save the university money, Jenkins said, will split the workload between colleges, making the study of women's issues more of a global campus initiative, rather than the focus of a specific institute.

"The commitment to women and women's research … still goes on, but it's not identified (under one entity)," Forste said.

Valerie Hudson, political science professor and one of 83 Women's Research Institute faculty affiliates, said she worries others may misinterpret the change.

"(The WRI) is a symbol that research on women is a priority to my university," she said. "I can't say that anymore. I feel a little sad about that. I wonder whether people will erroneously see this move, on the part of BYU, as reflecting badly on (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and its commitment and priority on issues that concern women."

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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