Daily Egyptian

GPSC members discuss women, gender and sexuality studies, mental health on campus

By Marnie Leonard

The Graduate and Professional Student Council voted Tuesday to oppose a suggestion from administration that the women, gender and sexuality studies program merge with another program in the College of Liberal Arts.

Lauran Schaefer, the president of the WGSS registered student organization, said even though the administration suggested a merger, it would be likely the classes offered would either deteriorate in quality or be dropped altogether without department director Barbara Bickel to coordinate them and ensure the classes register enough students.

“My understanding is that the language of ‘merge’ just really means ‘dissolve,’” Schaefer said. “If we cut this program now, it may never come back.”

Johnathan Flowers, Vice President for Graduate School Affairs, said COLA dean Meera Komarraju proposed sociology, psychology and communication studies as possible departments to absorb WGSS, but none of the three programs were receptive to the merger.

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“Our university has been talking a lot about diversity, but we are continually seeing actions where they take away diversity,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said WGSS offers the most diverse education at the university, with classes in subjects like black feminist thought and gender and global politics. Classes like these encourage conversations on campus about race, gender and other schools of thought that otherwise wouldn’t be as talked about, she added.

“Given that the university has a 5.3 percent international population as well as the increasing Islamophobic rhetoric in the United States, classes like this are particularly important,” Schaefer said.

In 2014, the university reported 16 sexual offenses on campus. In 2015, that number increased to 20. Given SIU’s commitment to curbing sexual assault on campus, Schaefer said, WGSS classes that talk about rape culture are vital to maintain on campus.

“Studies show students who take these classes are more likely to share this information with their peers,” Schaefer said. “It has a far-reaching effect.”

Apart from two abstentions, all members of the council present voted to stand with WGSS in opposing the possible merger.

Also at issue was a campus-wide absence policy drafted by the Faculty Senate, which Flowers described as being  “contentious” among members of the university Graduate Council.

In October, the education policies committee of the Graduate Council was asked to come up with a recommendation about an absence policy drafted by interim Provost Susan Ford. Ford and her staff realized the only official absence policies on campus were for university approved absences, religious observances, military leave and the law school, Flowers said. Any absence policy proposal would need approval from the Graduate Council and Faculty Senate to take effect.

The Graduate Council recommended that some terms of Ford’s draft be more clearly defined and that mental health emergencies be explicitly added to the list of excused absences, Flowers said.

The Faculty Senate submitted its own draft, which Flowers said does not include provisions for mental health emergencies and states faculty members are not required to provide materials like notes and study guides or go over lectures during office hours for students who miss class.

“I need not elaborate on the problems inherent in this policy, nor in the way in which it leaves students vulnerable to abuse by faculty,” Flowers said.

If Graduate Council and Faculty Senate don’t reach an agreement on a policy, Flowers said, the university would remain without attendance guidelines.

GPSC President Brandon Woudenberg suggested Flowers present a statement against the Faculty Senate’s proposal at the council’s next meeting on Feb. 7 for approval.

Mental health came up again when the council discussed a document circulated to its members outlining initiatives the university counseling and psychological services is undertaking to expand its services.

Proposals in the document included creating new positions in the department, shifting individuals to other positions to better use resources and increasing advertising, though Flowers said he was not at liberty to go into specific detail about the plans.

GPSC member Sheena Hart said the Student Health Advisory Board is working to enact some of the expansions already, and the board feels a major problem is a lack of awareness about CAPS services.

The university’s non-academic prioritization committee released a report Jan. 12 that identified potential long-term cash-saving measures. One proposal suggested eliminating state funding to centers that “that should be self-supporting,” the report says. Counseling and psychological services was one center listed to receive cuts.

Flowers said CAPS is now looking into outside grant money to fund the expansion, because for the previous school year, over 10,000 students used its services. These are especially vital for GPSC, Flowers said, because there has been an increase in mental health concerns in the graduate community.

“These cuts, along with the proposed Faculty Senate absence policy, bespeaks of a general failure on behalf of certain administrators and faculty to recognize the severity of mental health issues on this campus,” Flowers said after the meeting.

Staff writer Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

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