12 Turning a Feminist Lens on Administration

By Judith A. Howard, University of Washington Seattle

Illustration of author Judith Howard, leaning over a husky wearing a scarf with a W, by Nicole Carter
Judith Howard and Dubs by Nicole Carter

The values of the administrators with whom GWSS departments work are absolutely critical to our field’s success. Having administrators who define themselves as feminist and actively promote feminist goals can make all the difference. That difference goes beyond the success of GWSS departments and programs; having feminist administrators is also critical for promoting social justice goals throughout the academy. In this essay I offer some reflections on what feminist administration means, offer concrete examples, and suggest its impacts. I draw in part on my term (2001-2005) as the Chair of the Department of (then) Women Studies, now Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, at the University of Washington Seattle (UWS), but more fully on my twelve years (2005-2017) serving as the Divisional Dean of Social Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences at the UWS.

I begin with a few thoughts about administration in higher education more generally. Faculty tend to dismiss administration as tedious; an alternate pathway for those who are no longer active scholars. Some see administrators as sell-outs. In contrast, I believe that performing administrative responsibilities can be extraordinarily fulfilling. Administrators can make a significant positive difference in the lives and careers of the faculty and in the welfare of their academic units. Effective administrators have a deep understanding of, and appreciation for, the structural organization of the institution. They also need a deep knowledge of the relationships and networks among those in the higher administration. At the same time, administrators need to be politically aware and astute. Emotional intelligence is absolutely key. Administrators need to be able to inspire, build trust, be sensitive to relationships, and employ leadership styles that emphasize collaboration and collective responsibility.

These characteristics can certainly be found in administrators who do not define themselves as feminist, but I would argue that to be a feminist administrator one has to have these qualities. To have endured as an active feminist in the academy, one has almost certainly experienced all sorts of patriarchally-rooted institutional practices and is therefore better equipped to be a proactive ally to GWSS and other units that focus on scholarship about and education of disenfranchised populations. Why would a feminist faculty member want to pursue an administrative position? Because ideally an administrative position allows one to work toward feminist goals and institutional change—not just individually, but more broadly and systematically. To illustrate concretely what I mean by feminist administration, I address some of the core situations where a feminist administrator can have an impact. There are a number of critical processes for departments and for their faculty: departmental recruitment and faculty searches; faculty promotion; and departmental climate. I address each of these in turn. But first I address the question of priorities.

Influencing priorities: In some ways the impact of feminist administration is most powerful in the establishment of priorities. Who gets to hire? What fields will grow and what fields may shrink? What new initiatives are most important; what ones will not gain traction? What new directions of faculty research are valued, and by whom? Effective feminist administrators will find ways to bring attention and respect to fields, departments, and to scholars whose work may have been ignored in the past. In some ways this has been the greatest challenge over the past fifty years of GWSS. In its early years, the field was neglected. Through five decades of feminist scholarship and more recently, feminist administration, GWSS is now recognized and respected.

Recruitment: Faculty hiring is a critical opportunity for any department. Through hiring, feminist values can be deepened—or overturned. Most academic institutions these days assert their commitment to “diversifying” the faculty. Feminist administrators make sure that recruitment practices actually do promote that goal. A feminist administrator will argue that positions need to be allocated across departments in such a way that diversification of the institution is indeed promoted through hiring plans and practices. When a search is authorized in Arts & Sciences, we require that every committee member of every search committee participates in a training on “best practices.” The Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Diversity, together with the relevant Divisional Dean, provides an in-depth training in best hiring practices. This has been more successful in some units than others. While GWSS has made significant progress in deepening the diversity of its faculty on a number of dimensions, there are certainly other fields in which these efforts have been markedly less successful. And success in hiring is only a true success when these newly hired faculty remain at the institution for the long-term.

Another point at which administrators can make a significant difference is how the campus visit is structured and handled. Beyond the departmental meetings and talks, we also try to ensure that candidates have opportunities to meet with relevant faculty and communities outside the department (and sometimes outside the university). One critical part of the campus visit is the meeting of the candidate with the Divisional Dean. One of my main goals in those meetings was to make sure candidates know our values and understand who we are. I tried to create an atmosphere in which a candidate could feel comfortable talking with me about any factors, both personal and professional, that might affect their decisions. As one example, at one point we were attempting to recruit an advanced Assistant Professor from a peer institution. The candidate had indicated to me that she had a female partner. Her current institution was in a red state that did not recognize LGBTQ couples. I made sure to communicate to the candidate that Washington has a domestic partner policy and would provide partner health care. This is of special importance for LGBTQ candidates, of course, but is also important to communicate to any candidate, as a statement of the values of the institution—feminist values.

Sometimes a search will generate multiple superb candidates. A feminist administrator will do what they can to take advantage of such opportunities, perhaps authorizing appointments that were not anticipated in a hiring plan. Depending on the depth of resources, this might mean postponing additional hires for the next several years in order to do multiple hires from one search. Moreover, multiple departments might be conducting searches that generate candidates whose collective hire would generate more than the sum of their individual impacts. A feminist administrator will keep the broader campus intellectual community in mind in such situations. Going back to my earlier point about the importance of relationships, having strong relationships across schools and colleges—and with the Provost’s Office—can be critical to finding a suitable position for the partner of a candidate one is trying to hire. Some of our strongest appointments have come out of such situations.

Promotion: A feminist administrator can make a tremendous difference in how faculty experience key transitions such as promotions. Arguably, the importance of feminist administrators is most critical in the arena of promotion, where they exert particular influence on the fairness of promotion decisions for women/minoritized faculty. Despite decades of efforts, the proportions of women and minoritized faculty are still markedly lower at the higher levels of the academic hierarchy. (Lourdes Torres addresses this in her essay in this collection.)

From the transition from graduate student to Assistant Professor (indeed, even as a graduate student), administrators are well advised to encourage faculty to always keep both short-term and long-term goals in mind. Most schools mandate an annual review for untenured faculty. While this is important, more informal check-ins with faculty (by both Chairs and Deans) is critical in being well-informed about how they are doing. At the college level, it is useful to offer workshops to ensure that faculty understand the key components and timelines of promotion processes. Our college offers a workshop for all junior faculty who have been recently reappointed, focusing on how best to use the remaining several years before their tenure review.

When the promotion process is at hand, feminist administrators will make sure they and their departmental colleagues play their part in a timely and thorough manner by composing promotion committees and ensuring the thoughtful evaluation of each case. In instances where the candidate does interdisciplinary scholarship, they may reach beyond the department for members of the promotion committee to ensure a well-informed reading of the file. They will also recognize the stress this causes for those going through these reviews and treat them with compassion. It is important to add that feminist administration sometimes means communicating difficult messages. It is important to show faculty, students, and staff the respect to be honest about their performance and progress.

Feminist administration also entails facilitating colleagues’ own recognition of who they want to be professionally and personally. Sometimes this means a change, of course. If an Assistant Professor is increasingly focused on activities that may not earn them tenure, a feminist administrator will talk with them honestly, but not with a prescribed agenda. If a graduate student is pursuing jobs that are outside academia, a feminist administrator will give them the space and freedom to figure this out and help them to be successful.

Climate: Good administrators are not just bureaucrats. They can play a key role in creating a welcoming and supportive climate both within departments and beyond. At the collective level, climate is important not just within a specific academic unit, but also across a division, a college, and the institution. Feminist administrators can build a sense of community among the chairs in their division/college. Encouraging collaboration, sharing best practices, and providing mutual support among department chairs can yield all sorts of benefits, both expected and unexpected.

Feminist administrators are also attuned to the climate for all members of the institution—staff, students, and faculty. A personal touch can make all the difference. For example, learning the names of staff in all the relevant departments and knowing the student leaders go such a long way. As a Divisional Dean, I tried to have regular coffee or lunch dates with all new faculty in the division—typically fifteen to twenty times per year.

More generally, it is important to create a climate of opportunity and possibility. Administrators are in positions that filter many and varied opportunities. It is critical and deeply feminist to make sure these opportunities are brought to the attention of those who might profit from them and to provide support wherever needed: financial, temporal, or symbolic.

I do not mean to sound naively optimistic. There are obstacles to every action I have mentioned here. It is critical to create and sustain community among feminist administrators in order to accomplish these goals meanwhile keep one’s self going. When I first became department Chair, there was only one other woman among the fifteen or so Chairs present at our divisional meetings. By the time I retired from the Divisional Dean position, there were more women than men in the room. Moreover, we moved from three Chairs/Directors of color to six Chairs/Directors of color. The gender and racial balances profoundly change the conversation.

In a newsletter article for the Sex & Gender section of the American Sociological Association (October 2009), I wrote: “We are currently experiencing the most fiscally challenging times most of us have ever witnessed, both in higher education and globally. The present moment is an almost unprecedented opportunity to contribute both to public service and to public solutions in a time of global crisis.” These words are more prescient of our current moment than I could possibly have known. It is times like these in which it is all the more important to bring our feminist values and commitments to higher education administration.

COVID-19 Epilogue: I wrote this piece just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining steam. As the months have passed, it has become increasingly clear that the impact of the pandemic is being felt in the academy in ways that are aligned with enduring racialized and gendered dynamics—dynamics that are shaping the effects of the pandemic in virtually every other realm of life as well. Articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, and Inside Higher Education all report that having to move a workplace from the campus to one’s home has meant that women are picking up more of the housework, child care, and home schooling for their children; in general, more of the responsibility for making sure their family members are doing as well as possible, both physically and emotionally. One predictable consequence is that their academic productivity has suffered. Journal editors are now reporting reductions in submissions from women. Overloads of service work are becoming even more disproportionately assumed by women, especially women of color.

Feminist administrators need to pay very close attention to these patterns and proactively implement policies to address and ameliorate the effects of these gendered and racialized impacts. Tenure clocks can be suspended. If this is done, future reviewers need to be informed about what years are being evaluated, so years off the clock are not taken into account. No instructors, whether tenure-track, contingent faculty, or graduate students, should have their teaching evaluated in the traditional ways. Indeed, this is an opportunity to address the long-standing problems with those traditional teaching evaluation methods. These are just a few ideas. The key is that feminist administrators need to do everything they can to make sure the effects of this worldwide pandemic do not deepen and entrench the already profound gendered and racialized inequities in the academy.

Work cited:

Buckee, Caroline, et. al. 2020, May 15. “Women in science are battling both Covid-19 and the patriarchy,” in Times Higher Education Blog. www.timeshighereducation.com/ blog/women-science-are-battling-both-covid-19-and-patriarchy [Accessed: 5/27/2020]

Flaherty, Colleen. 2020, April 21. “No Room of One’s Own,” in Insider Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=c53fcd2d51-DNU_2019_COPY_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-c53fcd2d51-197447577&mc_cid=c53fcd2d51&mc_eid=0201a9fb77 [Accessed: 5/27/2020]

Howard, Judith A. 2009. “Brightening ‘The Dark Side’: Reflections from a Feminist Administrator.”  Sex & Gender Section Newsletter, American Sociological Association. October: 2-3.

Kitchener, Caroline. 2020, April 24. “Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus. ‘Never seen anything like it,’ says one editor,” in The Lily. www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-papers-during-coronavirus-never-seen-anything-like-it-says-one-editor/ [Accessed: 5/27/2020]

Pettit, Emma. 2020, May 26. “Being a Woman in Academe Has Its Challenges. A Global Pandemic? Not Helping,” in The Chronicle of Higher Educationwww.chronicle.com/article/Being-a-Woman-in-Academe-Has/248852. [Accessed: 5/27/2020]

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