The first time I met Dr. Cindy LaCom was in early 2017, was when I was looking into possible colleges to attend. At the time, I had no interest in the field of gender studies. In fact, my dad began what would become the first of many conversations with Cindy out of a deep curiosity of how they would respond to someone who fundamentally disagreed with them.
In that rather brief interaction with them, something about their attitude and approach to the world caught my attention.
Two years later, when I ran into them again at the on-campus Starbucks, I once again was drawn in and knew that I had to take a class with them before I graduated. After one class, I declared a gender studies minor.
Rationalizing that decision to my family was somewhat difficult; I was asked repeatedly, “What is gender studies and why is it useful?” In many ways, this is the same question that is facing Slippery Rock University today with the imminent retirement of Cindy LaCom and the decision to not seek out a full-time replacement to direct the Gender Studies department.
While this decision has seemingly been made with the goal of cutting university expenditures, the loss of a full-time director for the gender studies program also marks a major cut in opportunities for students on this campus. Gender studies is not an expendable or unimportant field of study which this university should be reducing. Instead, it should be seeking to grow and nurture this program for the sake of all students on this campus.
Let me rewind for a second and explain the scope of gender studies at Slippery Rock. When pressed to answer what gender studies is by family, friends and otherwise, I have offered the tentative definition of “the study of the many forms oppression takes within an intersectional context.”
This is because gender studies classes are not just limited to discussions of gender; They also examine topics like disability, sexuality, porn culture, the man box, systemic racism, law, medicine and the prison system among many, many more topics. The broad swath of topics it covers means it is a field of study which has relevance to every other field of study on this campus.
This is not a controversial take. The university agrees that these topics are important to every field of study.
Just last December, the university’s curriculum was changed to add a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) requirement for all incoming students in the fall 2022 semester. In the fall 2021, the university also sought out and hired a Chief Diversity Officer Anthony Jones. However, paradoxically, by fall 2023, it seems that gender studies, one of the major DEI pillars at SRU, will be director-less.
This is a clear disservice to students, as the loss of a director of gender studies also leaves many important student opportunities, including several unique classes, program planning and an annual newsletter, to either find their way onto another faculty member’s plate or to disappear from SRU entirely.
This is unfair to not only our current students, but also to future students. As someone who has deeply benefitted from these classes, programs and the advisement of Cindy, the thought of other students not having the same opportunity to grow truly breaks my heart.
In writing this piece, I dug up an old email that Cindy wrote to me after our first meeting over five years ago. I remember reading it when it came in and being surprised that, at such a big university, someone would care enough about meeting me to write me an email. That care for each student did not end there.
A few years later, with their help, I found myself presenting a paper I had worked on in their class at a conference. I also found myself attending deeply interesting programming which they helped to put on in their capacity as the Gender Studies Club advisor. In fall 2021, they helped me get an internship, which fulfilled both political science and gender studies criteria, for my spring 2022 semester.
I don’t expect someone to take over and be another Cindy LaCom. Their shoes are incredibly hard to fill, and their impact on this university and the students here will only be truly measurable in the years to come.
But, despite this, failing to fill Cindy’s position, and instead choosing to cut it out, is an administrative short sight in the name of a budget which should be righted.
The clearest route for this to be done is by changing course sooner rather than later and pursuing a full-time tenure-tracked professor to co-direct the department by spring 2023. This position would allow for Cindy’s shoes to be filled, for students to not lose the many opportunities offered by gender studies, and affirm, once again, that this university understands that DEI is important across disciplines and majors.
Opportunities like these, which I was offered, need to be protected for both future and current students. I believe doing anything less to be a disservice to all those who pursue learning at Slippery Rock University. The course needs to be changed and someone needs to be found to co-direct gender studies rather than taking the easy route which the university has decided on, one which clearly ends in cutting student opportunities.