CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mentions of suicide. Please use caution before reading.
After leading the Gender Studies Department for 12 years, Cindy LaCom (they/them) planned to retire in May 2023, but their plan has been disrupted.
SRU has not yet funded a tenure-track replacement for after LaCom retires, which has caused them to “make no decisions” about retiring at this point.
“My concern, and the loss for this institution, is that if we don’t include gender, sexual identity, expression and orientation in a deeply intersectional context,” they said, “we are doing a gross disservice to all sorts of our students.”
LaCom went on to explain this in the context of the gender wage gap, which is larger for women of color and women with disabilities, that over 80% of transgender youth have considered suicide and that the maternal mortality rate for black women is two to three times higher than it is for white women.
They also described the context of the U.S. criminal justice system, systemic racism and the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which has caused 26 states to regulate access to abortion, and 13 states to consider regulating access to contraception.
LaCom has decided to wait to make a decision about retiring until SRU administration names the next president in hopes that they may want to fund a tenure-track replacement.
Despite SRU not funding a tenure-track replacement, College of Liberal Arts dean Dan Bauer has been supportive of the gender studies program and the value it brings to the college.
“I fully expect we will hire a tenured or tenure-track professor to replace Dr. LaCom,” he said. “It just won’t be a faculty member from the outside whose only duty is gender studies. That’s a big difference.”
LaCom has been working in disability studies for more than 30 years and has been at the university for about 25 years. Professors are required to submit a request for a tenure-track replacement if they are retiring or potentially retiring.
After LaCom submitted their request, Bauer allegedly told them it was certain that the request would not be filled.
However, last spring, LaCom’s understanding was that they would be moving forward with a tenure-track hire for this spring, and they would be directing a national search while working with a committee that signed up to assist.
LaCom and the Gender Studies Committee also implemented a codirector model at this time. The codirector was planned as an internal hire and would help ensure a smooth transition once LaCom retired.
The current codirectors are LaCom and philosophy professor Kathrine Cooklin, who started in the position this fall.
“I fully expect, and my hope is, that we will have codirectors,” Bauer said.
He also said that the codirector model is beneficial because in some ways it allows the program to multiply its level of expertise and ability to work with students, but there are other models to get strong programs that aren’t bound around one person hired from the outside.
In addition to LaCom, Bauer has two other faculty members he expects to retire, but none of them have expressed their intent in writing, which he says muddles the process.
In one case, he has had several retirements and only one tenure-track search to offer.
Due to fewer enrollments across the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), he is forced to try to prioritize.
“You can’t keep up the same number of faculty and have a one-for-one exchange when you have 800 fewer students,” Bauer said.
He said that every 100 students are roughly $1 million for the university.
“Their (those in favor of a tenure-track replacement) concerns are valid. I share their concerns, but we’re looking at 8 million fewer dollars to run the university. That doesn’t always lead to the ability to make good decisions,” he said.
Bauer cannot fully proceed until he has their intent to retire in writing, so he is making contingency plans and discussing possible replacements but cannot make any offers.
“The people we’re looking at are highly talented. When we hire from the outside, we don’t always know what we’re going to get,” he said.
LaCom is concerned though that an internal hire may not have the same expertise to teach the three courses they have developed. One of which fulfills a Rock Studies requirement.
“Gender, women’s and sexuality studies is an academic discipline that takes years of learning, commitment (and more),” they said. “You can’t just step in and teach this.”
These courses will probably not be taught once LaCom leaves, but they said those courses might continue to be taught if they were able to conduct a national search for someone with experience in queer, race or embodies studies.
“Trust me, those PhDs are desperate for a job like this,” they said.
“There will be, at minimum, parallel courses that will be of high quality taught by high-caliber faculty members,” Bauer said, “almost all of whom will be tenured or tenure-track.”
Bauer wants to leave the door open for a new professor to design their own courses that align with their own research interests. He also urges that there has never been a gender studies professor hired from the outside.
LaCom and their predecessor were previously English professors before stepping into the director role.
According to LaCom, before she was removed from the administration, former provost Abbey Zink was incredibly supportive of a tenure-track replacement. With how long LaCom has been at SRU, they expect that a replacement would also enter with a lower salary.
LaCom also fills many other roles across campus. They serve as an ex officio member on the President’s Commission on Women, the President’s Commission for Gender Identity & Expression and Sexual Orientation and on SRU-APSCUF’s Social Justice Committee while attending monthly meetings, serving on subcommittees and organizing gender studies scholarships.
They also spend about 80% of the semester supervising internships and conducting independent studies since they became the director.
LaCom has also organized countless programing opportunities across campus and across the state. The normal is two programs per semester, but they were organizing five to eight campus-wide programs per semester often in collaboration with the Gender Studies Committee and others.
On average, 100 people attend these programs, and they are “deeply intersectional.” LaCom usually starts preparing for these six months in advance.
These include programs on disparities in gerrymandering and criminal justice, programs on maternal mortality and race, reproductive rights and living authentically as a transgender man.
“We’ve had more than 70 community and campus partners working to help collaborate and organize those,” LaCom said. “That’s a commitment of love, but it’s a commitment that also deserves to be recompensed.”
Most recently on Sept. 21, the Gender Studies Department hosted a program titled Real Talk in Real Time about prisoners and re-entry. They welcomed a returning citizen who helps other returning citizens, an alum who does mental-health resourcing in the criminal justice system and a parole officer who has worked in the field for almost 25 years.
They also have been developing a journal portmanteau and recently published the fifth edition of the gender studies newsletter, which is an “incredibly time-consuming task.”
For about 20 years, the Gender Studies Director position was a one-course reassigned position, which meant that LaCom taught one class instead of the standard four classes.
After doing this for years, they had substantially grown the program, the committee and course offerings.
Six years ago, LaCom proposed an increase to a two-course reassigned position. This made more sense in terms of sheer commitment of time and energy, they said.
Last spring, administration asked them to return to the one-course reassigned position. LaCom obliged to do their part to curb the university’s financial problems.
They were also asked to increase the number of students in gender studies courses to generate a higher full-time equivalency (FTE). Today, gender studies courses fill within 24 to 48 hours according to LaCom.
“Every request that I’ve been asked in terms of a reduction of reassigned position or an increase in workload as a professor, I’ve agreed to,” they said.
“I did it in part to support the university, but also because I really believed that I would be replaced with a tenure-track hire. I felt very much like I was acting under a kind of understood compromise.”
LaCom also urges that gender studies courses are not specific to that department and are spread throughout the college’s curriculum and essential to the university. The gender studies minor is one of two interdisciplinary minors on campus.
Alumni have also come out in support of the gender studies program.
Sara Naughton, a 2018 graduate who majored in English with a double concentration in Creative Writing and Gender & Diversity Studies with a minor in sociology, said that the education she received from the gender studies program “transformed the trajectory of my personal and professional goals and continues to influence my career in positive ways.”
Naughton received her master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Northern Iowa.
She is currently the Lead Community Impact Manager of Data and Evaluation for United Way of Erie County. It is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the Northwest Pennsylvania region. She leads a team working to provide equitable public education for students in poverty.
“Because of my ability to understand the many lenses through which people interact, work and move through day-to-day life,” she said, “I am better suited to create solutions to social issues; to produce effective policy and programs for businesses, organizations and government; and to understand the many ways in which community engagement and action provides vital resources for citizens.”
She argues that if SRU does not replace LaCom with a tenure-track position, they will be robbing students of opportunities to learn about one another and our world, removing an avenue for extracurricular professional development, stifling cross-campus collaboration and withdrawing their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Naughton also donates to SRU every year on Giving Day and expressed she would be far less likely to donate if the university continues to cut funding to programs that shaped her education and love for SRU.
Maggie Calvert, a 2020 SRU graduate who now works as an abortion counselor for an independent Pittsburgh clinic, said that they donate to student organizations, but not to SRU because “it is very clear that the best interest of students does not matter unless those interests produce a profit.”
Calvert also said they would actively steer prospective students away from SRU if they “destroy the program.”
“We are a really homogenous campus, and our futures are going to be incredibly diverse,” LaCom said. “Our futures are going to demand of us that we are prepared to work with people who don’t look like us, think like us, have histories like us, that we’re, if not fully comfortable, certainly adept at navigating those relationships.”