The University Record, September 18, 1995

New institute will have varied functions

Editor’s Note: This material was excerpted from an overview document prepared by the Institute for Research on Women and Gendeer.

The new Institute for Research on Women and Gender, designed to address President James J. Duderstadt’s goal of “making the University of Michigan the leading institution for the study of women and women’s issues,” will have multiple functions.

Coordination of existing research activities

The decentralized nature of the University makes it very difficult for individuals studying related problems to identify one another, collaborate and cooperate in seeking funding or visibility for their work.

The institute will identify ongoing research efforts in a variety of areas affecting women and girls and foster interdisciplinary dialogue by sponsoring seminars and working groups.

It will create “program areas” to bring together scholars already working on significant topics and will encourage the development of new program areas where needed.

Examples of two likely program areas:

  • Women, Work and Public Policy. U-M researchers have played a national leadership role in scholarship on aspects of women, work and public policy. Their disparate disciplinary and collegiate affiliations, however, have not permitted them to sustain interdisciplinary dialogue or research projects.

  • Feminist Theory. Again, U-M faculty are visible nationally, and Women’s Studies Program faculty have sponsored graduate and undergraduate courses as well as faculty seminars on this topic. In the future, a group of faculty might sponsor a summer program in feminist theory, providing training for faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral students in the humanities and other disciplines, drawn from all over the world.

    Other areas that reflect current research strengths on campus include women and substance abuse; women’s health; gender and popular culture, including film, television, music and print media; women and development; and violence against women.

    Stimulation of new research

    Some significant research questions are not being explored extensively at the U-M. The institute will identify important research areas in which work at the U-M is just beginning and then encourage new initiatives in those areas.

    Seminars on works-in-progress, external speakers and visiting scholars, as well as “seed money” to encourage new ventures, will be important components of this part of the institute’s work.

    Multicultural and international focus

    The Institute will be able to build from the beginning on an already strong multicultural and international foundation at the University. The Women’s Studies Program—an important source of faculty affiliates of the institute—has strong ties with U-M programs that focus on particular groups’ experiences in the United States, such as the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, Latino/a Studies, Native American Studies and Asian American Studies.

    The Women’s Studies Program has adopted a multicultural research and teaching agenda called “Differences among Women” that is reflected in both research and the curriculum. Themes focusing each year’s programming stress the importance of framing questions about women in ways that are respectful of women’s different personal and social situations.

    Yet another expression of the strength of the commitment to a multicultural perspective on women’s issues is the collaboration between the Center for the Education of Women and the Women’s Studies Program in planning a three-year program that focuses on women of color in the academy. In addition, the Women of Color Task Force has played a major role in making issues involving women of color staff, faculty and students visible on campus, and providing a training resource, particularly for women of color staff.

    Similarly, the presence of the International Institute on campus helps ensure a strong international perspective to the new institute.

    Links between the liberal arts and professional schools

    The Women’s Studies Program has always retained a strong preoccupation with the “real world,” particularly in the “real” situation of women. Because of this, the U-M has the potential to offer a unique approach to this concern with the real world through increasing the existing, unusual ties between the liberal arts and the professional schools. Women’s studies has many jointly appointed faculty from a variety of academic units who have participated in curriculum and other projects. These ties can and should be strengthened in interdisciplinary research.

    The area of feminist practice demonstrates the potential for growth of this nature. A group of women faculty from many units has met over the past several years to discuss the common elements of a feminist approach to professional practice. This resulted in a graduate seminar offered this fall and the initiation of the Interdisciplinary Feminist Practice Project, which has offered non-credit graduate seminars for faculty drawn from across the professional schools, professional alumnae and current students, and other projects.

    The Institute can support the development of interdisciplinary research programs from these activities—particularly research programs that are grounded in and serve communities of women outside the University.

    Communication of research and theory about women and gender

    There is a gap between complex research findings and conceptual frameworks and public discourse on policy-related questions. The gap is both large and consequential as it affects women’s issues.

    While recent years have seen increased complexity in public discussion of the issues, academic scholars with a rich knowledge base contribute far less than they could. This is particularly true at the U-M, where the lack of a visible center or institute makes it difficult for policy-makers or journalists to identify scholars with something to offer.

    One of the goals of the institute will be effective communication of empirical and theoretical breakthroughs to the public through a planned program of events and activities reaching audiences beyond the University community.

    The presence of the institute on campus will make the largest possible difference in the University’s national visibility in this area, as well as University scholars’ ability to help shape public discourse on important issues affecting women and girls.