USC Upstate students plan to protest closing of center, chancellor responds

jennifer.arnold@shj.comMay 20, 2014 

Students prepare to protest closing of USC Women and Gender Studies Center

JOHN BYRUM — Spartanburg Herald Journal

As USC Upstate students prepared to protest last week's closing of the Center for Women's and Gender Studies Center on campus, Chancellor Tom Moore announced Tuesday that administrators are exploring ways to create a new center.

Wednesday's protest is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., at the quad behind the campus administration building. It comes in response to last week's announcement by University of South Carolina Upstate officials that $450,000 in administrative changes and cuts to programs would be made to save money, including closing its Center for Women's and Gender Studies. The cuts would be effective July 1, with the bulk of the savings coming from moving some faculty and staff from 12-month positions to 9- or 11-month positions, officials said. Closing the Center for Women's and Gender Studies would equal $45,000 in savings.

The announcement that the Center for Women's and Gender Studies would close resulted in outcry from Upstate students and alumni, who said the center was a safe place to discuss feminism, race and LGBTQ issues. Some questioned whether the center was closed because of political pressure.

Last month, state Sens. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, and Mike Fair, R-Greenville, questioned the programming at the center, which for the past several years has planned a "Bodies of Knowledge" symposium that includes discussions of gay and lesbian issues. This year's symposium included a satirical performance by lesbian comedian Leigh Hendrix titled "How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less."

Bright and Fair said the program was "indoctrination" and an attempt at the "recruitment" of gays on campus. Hendrix's performance was cancelled due to outcry from the community, university officials said at the time.

The university also came under fire from the state legislature earlier this year for assigning a book with gay themes, "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," as required reading by freshmen. Rep. Garry Smith of Greenville County proposed a $17,142 cut in funding to USC Upstate. Last week, the Senate approved a compromise requiring USC Upstate to spend $17,000 on teaching the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.

Moore said Tuesday that the center was "absolutely not" closed because of external pressure from legislators.

"The timing was most unfortunate, which led to some very inaccurate conclusions," Moore said. "We never intended to eliminate the services or co-curricular programming of the center. Did we make mistakes in how we've announced these things? Certainly we did."

Moore told faculty in a memo Tuesday that he was appointing a task force to develop a new center that will encompass the women's and gender, African-American and international studies minors. The task force, chaired by Warren Carson, senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief diversity officer, will receive input from academic, student and faculty leadership, Moore told faculty.

"I envision the new center serving as the focal point and home for issues related to diversity in all its forms," Moore wrote. "I am confident that we can develop synergies and support across these programs and strengthen them all by doing so."

Moore said he knew closing the center would create controversy, but he didn't realize the attachment many on campus had to the physical space of the center. "The new structure will have a place," Moore said. "It will be a safe place."

Moore said he plans on attending Wednesday's protest, and hopes to talk about the issues with students Wednesday.

"I'm a child of the 60s and 70s," he said. "I appreciate their passion and willingness to voice their perspective."

Lisa Johnson, director of the center, said it's hard not to believe that political pressure led to its closing.

"We had the symposium that enflamed local political discourse, and now we lost the center to have those programs," Johnson said. "It's disconcerting to have such a big change without feeling like we're having an open conversation about why it's happening."

Johnson pointed out that the center focuses on other marginalized groups other than those related to sexual orientation. Race, religion, feminism and disability issues have been presented in co-curricular programs from the center, and it has received three awards related to programming, Johnson said.

Since 2006, there have been 70 lectures at the center - 50 of those by speakers from other campuses - 24 film screenings, 8 symposia and five community partnerships, including those with Girls on the Run International and Girl Scouts. Those connected to the center conducted a fundraiser last year for SAFE Homes Rape Crisis in Spartanburg to raise awareness of sexual assault.

Johnson said she's proud of the students organizing the protest.

"Anytime you see students getting involved, you feel so proud of them," she said. "I'm not leading the fight. I said, ‘It's your fight now.' I don't want to make it about me. It's a separate issue. They're there for the center asking for a service from the university."

As for Moore's statement Tuesday about restructuring the center, Chase Moery, who is organizing Wednesday's protest, said the chancellor is using a "smoke screen" to diffuse the situation and try to convince others that the restructured center will have the full support of the university.

"In so doing, he undermines the integrity of the university and offers false hope to supporters of the work of the Center for Women's and Gender Studies," Moery said in a written statement. "We refuse to sit idly by while our university administrators cave to the pressure of overreaching politicians that ironically live by a small government mantra."

Moery, an experimental psychology major who graduated earlier this month, said the Center for Women's and Gender Studies was a place that challenged him academically, where he found his voice and developed better critical thinking skills.

"Dr. Johnson is a huge advocate of speaking up for yourself," said Moery, who minored in women's and gender studies. "It gave me a voice I didn't know I had. The center serves as a safe haven for any marginalized group at USC Upstate. It feels like home, really."

Moery said he expects a crowd of about 100, but hopes for more protesters Wednesday.

"I've asked for a peaceful protest. I don't want anyone going too crazy," Moery said.

Students worked in the center Tuesday making protest signs. Moery designed buttons with slogans such as "No Moore," "No Moore Caving to Political Pressure" and "Save Our Center."

Rebecca Lambert, a graduate student who took Johnson's feminist theory class in the past, drew protest signs with markers on poster board reading, "Vote for Uncensored Education" and "Education not Legislation."

Lambert volunteered at the center last summer. She said she feels the center offers a safe space for students to have conversations, and that it's more of a resource to USC Upstate than most people probably realize.

When asked how she felt when its closing was announced, Lambert said, "Frustrated. Is this a trend? Who's next?"

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