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Women's group put on hold

President Nan Keohane's legacy of discussing women's issues on campus lives on to this day, but recent efforts to further the discussion appear to have slowed down.

Members of the President's Council on Women have not convened this year, but President Richard Brodhead said the program is still in place and is currently being evaluated.

"These are subjects that I care about and Duke cares about," Brodhead said. "The set of issues is pretty clear, and we've been following them quite conscientiously. It's about what you can create as an oversight structure that you can provide, and that's still in a process of evolution."

But when Duke Student Government received an e-mail this year from Deborah Copeland, administrative manager for the Office of the President, with a list of committees requiring student representatives, the President's Council on Women was no longer included, said DSG Executive Vice President Sunny Kantha, a senior. Copeland declined to comment on the issue.

Challenges with the Council

Since Keohane published the findings of the Women's Initiative in 2003, the study has received widespread attention, as it examined various aspects of the lives of female students, faculty, staff and alumni, and brought women's issues such as childcare and mentorship to light. Its comprehensive nature helped pinpoint certain issues to monitor, leading to the creation of the President's Council on Women in 2006.

Addressing all the issues presented by the Women's Initiative is a challenge, said Donna Lisker, associate dean for undergraduate education and former co-chair of the President's Council on Women, because the Initiative was a research project that incorporated women of all roles and backgrounds across the University.

"We were all over the place-part of the challenge in a body like this is that those issues someway overlap, but are distinct by constituency," she said. "In a committee like this, it's, 'How do you talk about issues of specific groups of women without ignoring the issues of other groups of women?'"

Brodhead said the University has worked over the last five years to determine the ideal way to support the ambitions and aspirations of women on campus. Subsequently, various constituencies of University women-including graduate and professional students, faculty and staff-were brought together through the council.

Junior Lucy McKinstry, a member of The Chronicle's independent Editorial Board, was a member of the council last year as a DSG representative. She noted, however, that her participation on the council proved incongruent with issues addressed in the Women's Initiative, and said there was a lack of organization and communication within the committee as well as a dearth of discussion on topics surrounding the Initiative.

"I think work at the presidential level on this issue undoubtedly has potential-it's just a matter of how it's done," she said. "If it's business as usual as last year, probably not. But hopefully they're coming up with a plan to make it function better, have more direction and, overall, just make it a better use of everyone's time and energy."

The council met about twice last year, and the purpose of the meetings was vague, McKinstry said. She added that targeting certain topics-such as allotting space for sororities and female campus groups-would be a good first step toward more effective discussions. An executive body may also be necessary to ensure various changes are instituted, keep dialogue alive and oversee a process of re-evaluation and execution, she said.

Student-initiated change

A chart on the Women's Initiative Web site-documenting the University's response to steps taken toward reaching the goals of the Initiative-shows that many of the undergraduate objectives presented in the report have been discussed, but have not been acted on. Groups such as the council, the Baldwin Scholars program and the Women's Mentoring Network were created and supported in response, but only some of the groups have made a lasting impact on campus, WMN co-chair Bethany Hill, a junior, wrote in an e-mail.

"The council is an institutionalized attempt to check off another box of the Women's Initiative's checklist and lacks active student support," she said. "It does hope to improve the state of gender relations on campus-a very valiant and ambitious goal. However, this council lacks the support of the undergraduate community. While organizations like WMN rely heavily on student input and involvement, the President's Council has yet to reach out to the entire female community. These aims may be in progress, but they aren't reaching the students fast enough."

Lisker and Steve Nowicki, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, supported the creation of WMN because it is student-led, Hill said. And campus organizations that are student-initiated are more successful, because "student leadership breeds student interest," she added.

Other campus groups also have the "right idea," Hill said, because large-scale, active programming for the entire undergraduate body-such as Joe College Day and Freewater Films-can promote gender-based campus equality.

"Shared experiences like these events allow students to establish interpersonal relationships beyond their pre-established social groups," she said. "It gives the students an opportunity to form relationships beyond the barriers of gender, race, Greek affiliation or Trinity and Pratt. If the council wants to improve campus culture, it must look beyond theoretical discussions and instead focus on active programming."

The council is just that-a group led by administrators to discuss women's issues across campus, not necessarily implement them. Although current campus groups like WMN are working to engage all students in gender-based activities, Hill said she looks forward to seeing the tangible results of the council's discussions via active programming.

Identifying new issues

Brodhead said he is considering launching a Web site that outlines the University's progress on the Initiative and clarifies what needs to be done for the future. The launch would mark the fifth anniversary of the Women's Initiative.

"There's no perfect administrative form to preside over this set of issues," he said. "Rather than locking ourselves into something eternally, we're trying to figure out what is the structure of oversight that puts us in the best position to continue to pay attention to this set of issues and identify new issues as they emerge."

A number of task forces have been created to identify new issues, one of which met last Monday, Brodhead said, adding that the University can take pride in how much it has improved on issues such as childcare, family leave and tuition benefits.

Although the University has made strides toward improving the lives of women, many of the issues stem from social norms, and are larger in scope than Duke can control, Lisker said.

"There are things Duke can do and tries to do and is doing, but that's not something that we can fix at Duke because it doesn't originate at Duke-all we can do is try and make it better," she said. "So one of the challenges for this group and the president is, 'Where can Duke intervene in ways that are useful and practical, and where do we recognize that there are bigger societal pressures that we can overcome?'"


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