I learned something from Amy Porterfield that I’ve been trying to try – something she calls “batching content.” Essentially, she suggests planning out the topics for 4-6 episodes and then writing, recording, and editing them all at once. That way you attend to your podcast intensively for a short period of time, which theoretically frees you for the rest of the month to spend your time working on other parts of your business.
So I had some episodes planned, but honestly they all feel frivolous given the state of the world right now. Instead, I’m dedicating another episode to exploring women’s leadership in higher ed in the wake of the damned Dobbs decision.
Last week I started ruminating on the coming experiences for young college students who find themselves forcibly pregnant – maybe forced through assault, maybe forced through lack of access to health care. In any case, if you’re forced into becoming and remaining pregnant, it has next to nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power: the power others use to dominate your body and force their will upon you.
In this context, I want to explore some of the ways women leaders in higher ed are using their power to resist. And I want to start not with higher ed but with the Representative from Wyoming, Liz Cheney.
I have some feelings about Cheney, given her background, legislative history, and tight alignment with much of Trump’s agenda. But I’m not a political analyst and I’d quickly be in over my head if I tried to be. What I’m interested in at this moment is the price she’s paying for telling the truth.
Liz Cheney is immensely privileged. She is white, straight, and married. She is highly educated. She comes from a powerful and wealthy family which gave her loads of resources and connections early in her career.
But she’s not fully privileged. After all, she’s a woman.
I dislike her voting record and she’s been callous about human rights. Even so, she appears to be a good thinker – by which I mean she can reason her way through problems. If I don’t like where her thinking takes her, well, that’s a difference in values and opinion, and not her refusal or inability to think. In a way, the fact that she can think well and still make some of the decisions she makes is testament to the strength of our democratic principles. I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine Liz Cheney might be someone you could have an intelligent disagreement with, and I respect that.
I’ve been slowly swayed to this lite version of Cheney-fandom by the prominence of her work on the January 6th Committee. Honestly, when I watch the hearings I’m downright awestruck by the committee’s storytelling capability. I don’t know who is doing the work behind the scenes, but when I watch the hearings I imagine a political version of a TV writer’s room, where people who understand the elements of a story – plot, narrative arc, characters, tension, resolution – use vetted, legal evidence to present a cohesive, coherent, and truthful story about how and why January 6th happened.
So here I am, sitting here in Milwaukee finding myself willing to engage with Cheney because she’s doing something I admire. And then I read this headline from Politico: “Liz Cheney wins the GOP’s Manhood Contest.” The headline is bad enough, but the deck beneath it really pisses me off: “Josh Hawley says real men value courage. Not many in Trump’s party clear the bar.” So essentially, I think, the founding editor of Politico – John Harris – has decided that a competent, strong woman who speaks an unpopular truth and holds fast to her convictions is…the winner of manhood? So yeah, I start reading the story all worked up with righteous indignation.
Harris’s piece is a quick read, and I’ll link to it in the show notes in case you’re curious about it. As the winner of the GOP Manhood Contest, Cheney doesn’t come off too well. When Matt Gaetz came to Wyoming to stir up anti-Cheney sentiment, she apparently said he could leave his beauty bag at home, since “in Wyoming the men don’t wear makeup.” I had to pause on that one, as it’s a sick game of connect-the-dots from that sentiment and the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard.
But instead of actually exploring gender, power, competence, courage, and perception, Harris sort of meanders through the murk of “well, actually, there are some characteristics men suffer for if they don’t exhibit them” and “maybe virtue is a perfectly good noun without any adjective – not masculine or feminine.”
To which I say, whatever, John Harris.
But this piece got me thinking about the intersection of gender, competence, courage, and perception, and why women who are both good at their jobs and brave enough to stand up for what they believe in are either considered masculine or troublemakers. It is really hard in US culture to be an outspoken woman who follows her convictions and also to be considered likable. All this got me thinking about the intersection of gender, competence, courage, and perception today on college campuses, particularly for women leaders, and specifically in the wake of Dobbs.
That was a long way into the topic, I know, but here we are.
As is always the case when exploring how campuses respond to urgent cultural moments, there is lots to criticize in what we’re seeing across the nation as campuses respond to the Dobbs decision – from campuses that have issued no statement whatsoever (remember: to stay silent is to side with the oppressors) to campuses that are ecstatically celebrating the ruling. My sense – this is just me, as a person observing the world – is that those kinds of responses are often based on beliefs about abortion. Many conservative religious campuses are celebrating Dobbs as a victory for the country, and I’m guessing – again, I’m not sure, just guessing – that campuses that are silent are uninterested in wading into a debate about abortion.
But framing Dobbs v. Jackson as an issue of abortion misses the real point. Yes, it explicitly overturns Roe. But it overturns Roe not on grounds of medical care but on grounds of privacy. Dobbs strips a pregnant person of privacy. And without privacy, there can be no bodily autonomy. And without bodily autonomy, there is no autonomy at all. And autonomy – actual freedom – is a topic that, IMHO, every college campus should be willing to fight for. If we believe, with Freire, that education is liberation, then our very reason for existence is to promote freedom.
At the same time, as I discussed last week, I’m pretty sympathetic to the difficulty institutions face in navigating the political and even the philanthropical terrains of abortion rights. I understand that there are people with very strong feelings about when life begins and what it means to terminate that life through a medical procedure. And I’m perfectly happy to respectfully disagree with them. What I’m not willing to do is condone silence when people’s rights are stripped away. And the right to privacy is perhaps the most foundational right a person can hold. If you don’t have control over yourself you cannot truly be free.
In that context, I went looking for more statements about Dobbs, this time specifically written and shared by women campus leaders, and with an eye and ear to whether they take a position on rights more broadly. I read dozens of statements from a range of campuses – large and small, religiously affiliated and secular, public and private, colleges and universities. For the record, I didn’t find any statements from community colleges, so if you have seen any please drop a comment and let me know. I won’t waste your time talking about the statements that suck, because I’m way more excited to share those that show women leaders at their most competent and courageous. As for worrying about the perception of others? I LOVE LOVE LOVE that these women are very clear about the perception they create, and they embrace it. (insert clap emoji)
What I love most about these statements is not the political positions they take, although in general I’m a huge fan. What I really admire in these statements is that – with the exception of a statement written by a co-ed student association – they are written by women who are willingly to publicly state their values, to demonstrate that their leadership is guided by their values, and to create the perception that the role of a strong woman leader is to stand up for what she believes is right. These leaders – and they’re not all presidents – exemplify values-based leadership at its finest. They use values-based leadership to throw a lifeline to their community. They communicate their presence, their attention, their thoughtfulness, their convictions, and in several cases, make a public commitment to take action. I’ll link to all the statements in the shownotes so you can read them for yourself. I find that they gave me tremendous hope for higher education.
For now, though, I’m just going to share a bunch of excerpts.
From Carol T. Christ, chancellor at UC-Berkeley: “I write today to share my personal opinion and reaction. While our university, as an institution, must maintain neutrality I am compelled by the magnitude and meaning of today’s decision on American women and their families to share my own perspectives.”
From Cristle Collins Judd, president of Sarah Lawrence: “It is stunningly difficult to comprehend the deliberate unraveling of certain long-established freedoms presently taking place in America.”
From a joint statement by Cynthia Larive and Lori Kletzer, the chancellor and executive vice chancellor at UC-Santa Cruz: “This decision intrudes on and in some cases endangers the lives, families, and relationships of all persons.” and then later, “Today is a difficult day in a decades-long movement to protect and advance human and civil rights for all people. It is not the last day in this struggle, though. We will continue to work and advocate for a more just and equitable future in which individuals are afforded the right to make personal decisions about family, relationships, and bodily autonomy.”
From a joint statement published in the New York Times and issued by 6 women, the college presidents at Bryn Mawr, Sarah Lawrence, Wellesley, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Vassar: “We want to make clear that we do not believe that the rights of Americans should be limited by geography.”
From Jennifer Chou, a Wellesley alum and staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, during a college-hosted webinar on the decision: “What we are seeing today is a shift to criminalizing pregnant people themselves.” Chou said anything from having a glass of wine to taking medication for depression to seeking treatment for cancer while pregnant could subject a pregnant person to criminal investigation and proceedings: “This is the world we now live in.”
From Alison Byerly, president at Carleton College: “It is interesting to contrast today’s reversal of Roe v. Wade with the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday defining an individual right—rooted in part in the same constitutional amendment as Roe—to carry a gun in public for self-defense. These two rulings together dramatize the fact that while American culture places a high value on individual rights, those rights are unequally distributed. On the one hand, women are denied the right to bodily autonomy, and stripped of one of the most fundamental choices they will ever make. On the other, gun owners are given the right to take guns almost anywhere, and implicitly trusted with the choice of whether or not to shoot another human being.”
From the Vassar Student Association, which is co-ed and has men serving as president and vice president, but maintains its ties to the seven sisters conference, includes a number of women in leadership positions, and is comfortable aligning itself with their president: “As the elected representatives of the Vassar student community we share President Bradley’s concern for how this will affect our fellow students and limit the choices of our peers. We are further troubled by Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion, which calls into question the legitimacy of numerous prior rulings made on the basis of an assumed constitutional right to privacy, including those which established the fundamental rights of millions of people of color and LGBTQ+ people. The Vassar Student Association remains committed to an intersectional anti-racist, feminist, and queer liberation and stand wholeheartedly in the defense of our peers.”
From Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College: “Oberlin College has a long history of commitment to thle values of social engagement and academic excellence. I pledge to you that our response to these new restrictions on reproductive healthcare will be centered on our values. I believe that being free to make decisions about one’s own reproductive healthcare and being enabled to access that care reflects the values of this institution.”
From The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which is led by Dr. Mira Irons: “Our mission to advance the cause of health while upholding the ideals and heritage of medicine includes critically examining the history of medicine, with its successes and its failures. History has shown that limiting access to healthcare results in dangerous alternatives and devastating outcomes, with complications that threaten mental and physical health. Patients and their physicians may now be forced to suffer while leaders who do not learn from history condemn us to repeat it.”
OK. There’s a lot there. I want to spin these out into four directions:
There has been some furor in the news that Brett Kavanaugh is getting harassed when he goes out to eat. Folks are insisting that he has, um, a right to privacy that should allow him to enjoy a meal. Let that to sink in for a minute: A man credibly accused of sexual assault who is now in a position to make laws that will affect every person living in the US is comfortably stripping women of their right to privacy and bodily autonomy (just ask Christine Blasey Ford how that feels) is now whining that…he wants privacy?
Of course he is.
Because Dobbs is not just about privacy, it’s about autonomy and control. It’s about returning control over others’ privacy to the domain of white patriarchy, where it has long lived in US history. Here’s what Jill Filipovic has to say about it:
”This is, of course, extremely ironic: Roe v. Wade was decided on the basis of a constitutional right to privacy….. But […]: Roe didn’t invent the legal concept of a right to privacy….. The idea that there is a sphere of privacy around the home and one’s familial, sexual, and domestic life is one long enshrined in American culture and jurisprudence — it’s just that the privacy right was held by men.
Which is also why we’re seeing people, with a straight face, promote radical governmental interference all the way up into the extremely private space of women’s uteruses now wring their hands about Brett Kavanaugh’s privacy being violated because he couldn’t order the crème brûlée: The right to privacy is a privilege long reserved for men.”
And this is why it is so very important that women use their leadership positions to fight for rights, regardless of their personal position on the practice of abortion. The university as a concept is a patriarchal institution, and universities historically upheld only the rights of white men – either those who were wealthy or those who could be sponsored. Disenfranchisement and discrimination are quite literally in our organizational foundations. We’ve come so far the last 150 years or so – with land grant institutions, community colleges, HBCUs, women’s colleges – but still. In the words of Coretta Scott King and quoted by the six presidents who penned the opinion for the NYT, “The struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
Our country is losing the battle, and we need our women leaders – at all levels – to fight – to fight hard, and to fight publicly. I am so grateful for the courage all these leaders have shown to publicly use their voice about the importance of our rights.
Number two on the list of things I’m pondering is our students’ rights to privacy. I talked last week about the terrors and traumas for students who are pregnant and don’t want to be, and wondered aloud about the kinds of accommodations and physical and emotional support they’ll need. Now I’m also thinking about their literal privacy on campus. Filipovic writes that feminists have “questioned the idea that the state must stay out of a heterosexual man’s bedroom and his marriage, but should extend its reach underneath a gay man’s sheets, or up a person’s uterus.” That phrase gave me a stark visual of an intrusion into the private spaces of students’ college bedrooms. I mean this pretty literally. Let’s imagine a pregnant college student starts to bleed and, worried about a miscarriage, goes to the hospital. Let’s further imagine that that student is in college in a state that criminalizes abortion, and so as a self-protective measure the healthcare provider files a police report, protecting themselves from being tried as an accomplice just in case the student induced the miscarriage. And then let’s imagine that the police investigate this report, and in the process ask for the cooperation of campus public safety and maybe even the Title IX coordinator. And now suddenly campus employees are involved in an investigation that includes searching the students’ room for evidence of a potential crime.
As far-fetched as that scenario sounds I can totally see it happening. It terrifies me.
OK, and so now let’s play all that out in the context of my third concern.
Back in May – after the Dobbs decision was leaked but before it was handed down – Nell Gluckman wrote a thoughtful piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called If ‘Roe’ Falls, More Female Students Could Face the ‘Motherhood Penalty.’ In it, she shares research findings that indicate that
“women with low socioeconomic status… ‘are much more frequently called upon to sacrifice their educational pursuits, at least in the short term, to provide caregiving labor.’ Those women took 50-percent more breaks from college than men with low socioeconomic status…[and] took twice as many breaks as women with high socioeconomic status. [….] ‘Nurturing a new child was easily the most common form of caretaking in [the researcher’s] sample and was often brought about by an unplanned pregnancy during late high school or early college.’”
This is not the only body of research indicating that lack of access to reproductive healthcare has a disproportionate effect on historically excluded and marginalized people, including all women, women with brown or black skin, indigenous women, women with low incomes, queer and trans individuals, immigrants, and those with disabilities.
Now, consider that reality in tandem with a perception I often hear from admissions folks at non-elite institutions: for many colleges, community colleges, and universities, the majority of the student population comes from about a 90-mile radius.
The motherhood penalty means that more potential students won’t be coming to college at all, or they’ll come but won’t be able to stay, all because they lost their right to privacy and were forced to be pregnant. It may also very well mean that institutions that typically attract students from around the country but now find themselves in a state with highly restrictive laws will be less appealing to some students. Pair that with the admissions challenge, and contemplate that if your campus is in a region where a 90-mile radius pulls from other nearby states, and those states sustain their rights to privacy but the your state doesn’t, you may not be able to attract even some of the nearby students you once did. And then finally: what if you are in a predominantly white region, and your mechanism for racially diversifying your student population has been to attract students from neighboring states, and those states now protect students’ rights more than the state you’re in….
The worst case scenario actually seems pretty likely: in states where rights to privacy are rolled back, college campuses risk becoming less diverse overall: fewer women, fewer low-income students, fewer LGBTQIA+ students…and more white men, all because they’re the ones who still have a right to privacy and bodily autonomy.
Now toss in the coming demographic cliff and just…think about that for a moment.
Oh! And also – all this? Applies to faculty and staff as well.
All of which leads to my fourth concern.
I was heartened to read at the University of Michigan that President Mary Sue Coleman convened a task force when the Dobbs decision was leaked, so they’ve been thinking about this for weeks.
I’m also heartened by the campuses that are acknowledging their roles as educators. The University of Utah writes that “as a public higher education…institution [….] the university has a responsibility to speak and educate the community about issues that impact our campus community.” President Bradley at Vassar writes “At this time, Vassar’s role in promoting dialogue even in the face of disagreement is ever more essential.” Chancellor Christ at UC Berkeley writes “…in our classrooms and in other spaces across our campus, we are preparing the next generation of leaders to advocate for the most vulnerable among us by championing fairness, equity and equality in creating a world in which all can thrive. I pledge to work alongside each of you to make this so.” And President Byerly at Carleton College writes “I am grateful to be part of a community that I know will engage in thoughtful discussion, debate, and activism on the critical issues of our time.”
Some schools pretty quickly took action to start the educational and civic dialogue this moment calls for. Both Vassar and Wellesely hosted forums on Zoom with faculty, students, and alums. Barnard held a campus conversation featuring a faculty member in Gender and Sexuality Studies alongside a faculty member in Population and Family Health, AND announced that this fall, “the college would solicit proposals for new initiatives in curriculum, research, dialogue, and actions that advance our knowledge and understanding of reproductive health and rights.”
A few episodes ago I talked about four ways you could prepare for your leadership role this coming fall. I want to revisit that premise and offer up a few additional suggestions. My training to teach literature and writing compels me to suggest to you that you take a few moments to freewrite, so I’m just gonna leave that suggestion right there. (But please do!)
First: What do YOU need for this fall? Do you feel safe? Do you feel your family is safe? If not, spend some time thinking about what you can do – things that are within your control – to increase your sense of safety or well-being. Maybe you can make an adjustment to your work environment. Maybe you can move. Maybe you can find a support group. I don’t know what will help you feel safer – if you’re a woman, TBH there isn’t much safety right now – but think about it, make a list, and see what you can actually make happen.
Second: What does your TEAM need for this fall? Do folks want or need space to process with colleagues? To ask questions about your institution’s medical benefits? To ask whether and how they can seek accommodations if they need them? Or if they can have time off to help family members? Think about your specific team, then write some questions for them, send those questions via email (or Slack or WhatsApp or however you like to reach out), and then go to your calendar and schedule some time for conversations – maybe the full group, maybe small groups, maybe 1:1. You’ll know how to do this best, but whatever you do: check in with your people. Give them the space to voice their fears, and be prepared to act on them.
Third: what will your STUDENTS need for this fall? I encourage you to think of everything you can, from support from the chaplain to accommodations to enhanced access to mental wellness resources to violence prevention workshops to civic dialogue. Once you’ve brainstormed a list, start asking relevant folks on your campus about your ideas. Maybe go to your friend in Student Life and talk about housing and counseling. Or stop by the public safety department and ask how you can help support their efforts to keep students safe. You could consider talking to the faculty president about helping faculty prepare to facilitate what might be challenging classroom conversations. (I don’t know about you, but we have great faculty presidents on our campus and I know these conversations would be welcome.) Maybe you could propose a new course, or a faculty development series, or a host of speakers and events for students. You could even consider getting involved, if you’re not already, in voter registration and support. And whatever else you do, please engage with the folks on your campus leading inclusion and belonging initiatives – find out what they’re worried about and what they want to make happen, and collaborate with them to bring those things to life. Don’t ask them to solve your problems: help them solve the problems they’re tackling.
And with this call to action I come full circle, all the way back to Liz Cheney and the intersection of power, competence, courage, and perception. I’m not about to hold up Cheney as a paragon of virtue but I stand by what I said earlier: I think, in general, she has shown that she can be a good thinker and she stands by her convictions even when they’re unpopular. She is good at her job, and she uses and even enhances her power by acting with courage regardless of perception. Or I shouldn’t say regardless. What I mean is, she doesn’t worry about how people perceive her based on her positions; she creates the perception of herself as a woman who lives in congruence with her convictions. I mean, I would have voted completely opposite to her on nearly everything in her legislative history, and even I perceive her as a woman who stands up for what she believes in. Despite our ideological differences, I see Cheney working hard at promoting values-based leadership.
So, too, are the women and student leaders I’ve highlighted today. All of them are acting at the intersection of power, competence, courage, and perception. They are all leading from their values, and they are not shying away from making that visible. They are standing by what matters to them: women’s rights, the importance of civil rights for everyone, the safety and well-being of students and the entire campus community, and the fundamental value of the educational enterprise.
And you, in your leadership role on your campus, can do the same. Lead from your values. Look within, and decide how you can best care for yourself. Look to your team, and figure out the best things you can to use your values to improve their lives. Look to your students and do the same. Make some lists of actual things you can do. Take your list around campus and talk to your colleagues about how to bring which of those ideas to life. Use your power and competence. Show your courage. We are all depending on each other to step into this fight.
Liz Cheney’s biography. https://cheney.house.gov/biography/
Liz Cheney Wins GOP’s Manhood Contest. John Harris @Politico. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/07/07/liz-cheney-gop-masculinity-hawley-00044390
The Liz Cheney Fight is Not About Gender. Except Where it Is. Molly Roberts @Washington Post. (Not referenced but an interesting read!)
Roe Ruling is a Major Setback for Women. Carol Christ @ UCBerkeley.
A Statement from President Judd on the Supreme Court’s Reversal of Roe v. Wade. Cristle Collins Judd @Sarah Lawrence College. https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/news-events/news/2022-06-25-a-statement-from-president-judd-on-the-supreme-courts-reversal-of-roe-v.-wade-anc.html
Supreme Court Decision Revokes Fundamental Civil Rights. Cynthia Larive and Lori Kletzer, UC-Santa Cruz. https://news.ucsc.edu/2022/06/supreme-court-revokes-civil-rights.html
‘Deeply Concerned’: Six College Presidents on the Abortion Ruling.
“This is the world we now live in”: Wellesley Alums Explain the Post-Roe Reality in Law, Advocacy, and Health Care. https://www.wellesley.edu/news/2022/stories/node/197326
Panel Discussion of Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court Ruling. Wellesley YouTube channel. Panel Discussion of Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court Ruling
Supreme Court Reversal of Roe v. Wade. Alison Byerly @Carleton College. https://www.carleton.edu/president/news/supreme-court-reversal-of-roe-v-wade/
Resolution No. 6: A Statement on the SCOTUS Opinion regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Vassar Student Association @Vassar College. http://vsa.vassar.edu/statement/070422/
Access to Reproductive Health Services. Carmen Twillie Ambar @Oberlin College. https://www.oberlin.edu/campus-resources/bulletins/access-reproductive-health-services
A Statement from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. https://collegeofphysicians.org/our-work/health-and-advocacy-initiatives/statement-college-dobbs-v-jackson
Jill Filipovic, substack. Brett Kavanaugh’s Right to Privacy. https://jill.substack.com/p/brett-kavanaughs-right-to-privacy
If Roe Falls, More Female Students Could Face the Motherhood Penalty. Nell Gluckman @Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/if-roe-falls-more-female-students-could-face-the-motherhood-penalty
Colleges Aren’t Prepared for Roe’s Fall. Bianca Quilantan @Politico. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/06/24/roe-decision-colleges-pregnant-students-00042246
Supreme Court. Elizabeth Bradley @Vassar College. https://www.vassar.edu/president/community/2022/supreme-court
The Supreme Court’s Dobbs Decision. Sian Leah Beilock @Barnard. https://barnard.edu/news/supreme-courts-dobbs-decision
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