Ten years ago, the Baldwin Scholars program set out to shift the balance of gender power on campus toward a more equal state.
Stemming out of the recommendations of the Women's Initiative held in the early 2000s, Baldwin Scholars launched in 2004 as a women’s leadership program for undergraduates. Each year, Baldwin selects 18 first-year women to participate in group seminars and leadership development activities, as well as to live in the Baldwin residential house. The 10th anniversary provides a moment to evaluate the role the program has played in advancing opportunities for women at Duke, as well as to examine the challenges it faces in achieving its mission.
Participants of the program praise it for its opportunities and support, although others have noted that Baldwin's exclusivity may limit the scholarship's impact on campus.
On the official website of the scholarship program is a quote from Nan Keohane, Duke's president at the time of the program’s establishment: “[Baldwin scholars] will serve as exemplars of strong, smart women leaders, and will graduate prepared to play a significant role in society, regardless of their chosen career paths.”
In service of this mission, the Baldwin program looks for female students with a particular set of qualities, said Donna Lisker, founder and co-director of the Baldwin Scholars Program.
“First, we look for students who know themselves very well and are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses,” said Lisker, who will leave to become dean of the college at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. at the end of the school year. “Secondly, we are looking for young women who are agents of change. Finally, we are looking for students who want to both give and receive.”
Baldwin scholars over the years said they have enjoyed various advantages and opportunities provided by the program.
“[The Baldwin Scholars Program] constantly challenges the women who are a part of it and helps members to be better, stronger, and ready to take on the world, in Duke and outside of it,” said senior Flora Muglia, a Baldwin scholar. “The network is a wonderful connection to have when applying for jobs or looking to be involved with activities on campus. The program has been an invaluable part of my Duke experience and has helped me to grow as a leader and as a woman.”
The impact of the program is difficult to quantify, but the positive effects it has had for its participants are clear, said Colleen Scott, associate director of the Baldwin Scholars. The influence that Baldwin has had on individuals has perhaps contributed to a ripple effect of inspiration, she noted.
“Objectively, we have not been able to figure out a way to assess the impact of the program on the community,” Scott said. “Subjectively, I feel that the women in Baldwin have inspired other undergraduate women to use their voices and take stands on issues that matter to them.”
Muglia noted that a crucial change the program has induced on campus is creating a forum to talk about women’s issues and feminism.
“Internally, Baldwin develops leadership and encourages the women in the program to find their passion, creating a network that continually grows stronger year after year. Externally, it serves as a reminder that there is always room for improvement when it comes to gender equality,” Muglia said.
In the past 10 years, though, a number of significant campus leadership roles have been held largely by men. Before Alex Swain, Trinity '12, was elected Duke Student Government President in 2011, the campus had had one female DSG president in seven years. Swain has been followed, however, by two female presidents—current president Stefani Jones, a senior, and president-elect Lavanya Sunder, a sophomore. Only one female Young Trustee has been elected in the decade since Baldwin's establishment.
Scott noted that these statistics are not satisfying and said further improvement is desired.
“We are overcoming the obstacles by creating an environment where women feel comfortable putting themselves out there,” Scott said. “Within the Baldwin program, we are working on public speaking skills, negotiations skills and building up confidence.”
Scott also noted that the program has experienced pressures, demanding more tangible achievements.
“I feel like there are a lot of pressures on the program to prove that we are doing something. In a lot of ways, the stuff we’ve been doing seem like baby steps, because we’re pretty much one of the only organizations out there doing it, other than the women’s center,” Scott said.
At the same time, a number of females on campus holding important leadership positions—including Jones and Sunder, as well as outgoing Duke University Union president Lynn Vandendriessche, a senior—are not involved in the Baldwin Scholars Program.
“I thought the scholarship program was interesting, but I wasn’t necessarily interested in living in section,” Sunder said. “I define one of the main things I care about to be women’s issues, but I felt like I didn’t have to be in a selective group to influence women’s issues on campus.”
The perils of selectivity
Duke community members have described the Baldwin scholars themselves in an almost uniformly positive light: “well-organized,” “very driven,” “motivated” and “passionate about their own different fields.”
Some people, though, have noted concerns with the degree of selectivity inherent in the program. Each year, the program admits 18 out of approximately 150 applicants. Some on campus have voiced their skepticism toward whether empowering such a small group of women can effectively address the issue of gender equality as a whole.
“The fact that the program is so very selective makes the scholars kind of snobby,” said junior Christina Lee, campus correspondent for women’s interest blog Her Campus. “They are extremely intelligent and busy all the time, but they also seem almost standoffish sometimes.”
Sunder defended the selectivity of Baldwin by acknowledging its importance.
“Baldwin is exclusive, but it needs to be exclusive, or else it loses the potency of the program,” she said.
Sunder, however, also emphasizes that to have these exclusive programs like Baldwin and Business Oriented Women, it is equally necessary to have inclusive programs. Sunder wrote in her platform for DSG president that she wants to create a mentorship program for all women at Duke.
“It’s very easy to say that women need to be empowered and hold leadership positions, but a lot of the times, such ideology ends up being somewhat elitist in that some women hold these leadership positions and get access to networking, but no one else,” Sunder said. “So I wanted to create a program that is inclusive of all women on campus.”
Sunder is currently working on the establishment of the new mentorship program, which potentially involves a first-year women counsel to which all first-year female students are invited.
Also concerned about the selectivity of program is senior Caroline Hall, co-director of Gender Equity on DSG’s cabinet and Gender Justice intern at the Women’s Center, who questioned the real scope of the Baldwin program.
“The type of feminism the Women’s Center focuses on is empowering all women. However, the real scope of the Baldwin program is really limited in terms of what they can do. It’s not very inclusive,” Hall said.
During the time that Ada Gregory was the director of the Women's Center, she said the Baldwin Scholars financially supported many Women’s Center projects, including the event Elect Her organized by the Women's Center to promote campus leadership of female students.
"Individual Baldwins have also been deeply engaged in the work of the center as interns or volunteers over the years," Gregory wrote in an email in March.
Scott noted, however, that the program “was not designed to do everything for everyone.” She added that some benefits of the program spread to other women on campus.
“For example, when the first-year Baldwins go into housing, they can bring a non-Baldwin roommate with them," Scott said, adding that the program brings a major speaker to campus each year and opens the event to the entire Duke community—this year, Gloria Steinem.
Muglia noted that although the program is selective, women outside of the program can still be influenced by the work done by its participants.
“The selectivity of Baldwin stems from the resources available to fund the program,” Muglia said. “But that doesn't mean we can’t constantly be improving how we interact with the conversation on feminism as a whole. Every woman on Duke's campus is incredible in her own way, and acceptance into the Baldwin Scholars or rejection from the program doesn't change that fact. Baldwin helps to nurture a smaller group with the hopes that those women will help change the culture as a whole.”
The program's 150 annual applicants come from a total number of 800 female students from the freshman class each year. Some women who did not apply, however, said that they do not necessarily feel that their opportunities on campus are limited.
“The overall impression I got from the program is that it is a very big commitment to make, in terms of having a summer research project to complete, taking seminar classes and living within the Baldwin community,” said freshman Tory Trombley. “I didn’t apply because I don’t know if the opportunities provided by the program would be worth this much commitment. I also don’t regret not applying, because there are various other amazing opportunities on campus so I don’t really feel like I’m missing out.”
The changing environment for women
Whatever the specific impact of the Baldwin Program may be, the campus environment for women has improved since 2004, Scott said.
“Fraternities on campus used to have parties with demeaning themes for women, such as 'pimps and hoes' and 'executives and secretaries,' where women were expected to dress these parts. Now, women are standing up and saying ‘No,’” Scott said, noting that events such as sorority lip-syncing contests on the Bryan Center that "objectified" women have also disappeared.
Gregory, former director of the Women's Center, noted that students seem to have found their voices during the years she assumed the position.
"Student activism related to sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. increased immensely over the years that I was Director of the Women’s Center," Gregory wrote.
Gregory also added that she has noticed an increase in new and old media platforms—such as blogs Develle Dish and Her Campus, as well as The Chronicle—that featured more women as well as more female writers. These changes, Gregory said, are making women’s experiences and insights more frequently a part of campus dialogue.
Gregory, however, pointed out that gender inequalities continue to exist on campus.
"Serious concerns of alcohol, sexual assault and eating disorders persist in gendered ways, and the campus culture appears to influence some student behavior in less desirable ways on all three counts, particularly for first year students," she wrote.
As Baldwin enters its second decade, Duke's campus still faces a number of gender issues—although definitive steps have been made towards progress.
“The Baldwin Scholars Program was initially one of many initiatives that were happening at Duke to affect gender issues on campus, but is the only one that’s been sustained,” Scott said.
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