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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Columbia's prestigious women, gender institute on chopping block
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times
2012-03-30

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Those who struggle to recall the full name of Columbia College's Ellen Stone Belic

Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media ( or the Institute, for short ) ,

have little trouble recognizing its impact on arts, gender studies and media in Chicago and

beyond.

But after just over six years, Columbia is considering axing the Institute. The

news has sent a shockwave through a community that regarded the Institute as one its most ambitious undertakings and one Columbia's most prized programs. The recommendation to cut the Institute has largely evaded media attention while recommendations to cut the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Center for Black Music Research have been noted in recent media reports.

The process has widely been referred to as "prioritization," an extensive review of Columbia's programs and centers, through surveys and outside research.

"Prioritization" aims to ensure the vitality of the school in the long run, said Columbia

President Dr. Warrick Carter, in a statement released to Windy City Times.

"At its core, it is an opportunity to ensure we are offering a curriculum and programs that remain on the cutting edge of arts and media education and best position our students for the future," Carter said.

While the "prioritization" has been billed as an exciting step for the college, most speculate that a lack of funds has fueled the massive programming cuts. The college, they say, is catching its breath after a booming expansion. The Institute and other programs proposed for removal were founded during more fruitful times, but the poor economy has rendered the school's rapid growth unsustainable.

The result has been a process that is threatening to strip the college of some its most valued resources from the Institute to Dr. Randall Albers, a veteran teacher in the fiction writing department that began Columbia's renowned Story Week festival.

The Institute was opened in 2006 by Jane Saks, a longtime LGBT advocate and 2009 Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame inductee. Saks has won numerous awards for her work both within and outside of the Institute. She currently serves as the Institute's executive director, and most credit her with its stunning success. Saks declined to be interviewed for this story.

In its short life, the Institute has provided fellowships to Pulitzer Prize winners Lynsey

Addario and Lynn Nottage. It has supported the creation of "Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South," E. Patrick Johnson's award-winning book and theatre production based on personal interviews. A fellowship from the Institute supported transgender filmmaker Jules Rosskam in creating his documentary "against a trans narrative." ( Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim was also awarded a fellowship in 2009 ) . In total, the institute has supported 35 fellows.

Those closest to the institute say that they understand the need for budgetary cuts, but they are largely baffled by the choice to kill the Institute.

Diane Doyne, associate vice president of PR for the college, declined to comment beyond Carter's released statement, which does not specifically address why the Institute made the list for cuts.

Dorothy Allison, queer writer and author of the novel Bastard Out of Carolina sits on the Institute's advisory board. Allison said that she sees cuts happening everywhere. In 2008, she lost a third of her teaching engagements as a result of funding cuts.

But she called the proposed elimination of the Institute "short-sighted."

"The media center is enormously successful," she said. "There is nothing like it. That's

the main thing. There isn't anything like it in the country."

Addario agrees. In 2008, the Institute awarded her a fellowship for her project "Congo: Women Portraits of War."

Up until then, Addario had worked for years on assignment. But she had her own ideas for projects, and she searched for years for funding to make them happen.

"I had never been given that opportunity before," she said.

The exhibit that resulted, a look at the impact of sexual violence on women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, toured the U.S. and was displayed at the United Nations ( other photographers included Marcus Bleasdale, Ron Haviv and James Nachtwey ) .

"That work, it basically couldn't have been possible without the institute," Addario said.

The difference, say Institute supporters, is that no other program nurtures, insulates and

empowers the vision of the artists it supports in quite the same way. Moreover, they argue, the

prestige awarded to Columbia by its association with the Institute, far exceeds its financial

burden on the college.

"Most institutions would die for that kind of press and prestige," said Johnson, who in

addition to being an Institute fellow is a Northwestern University professor.

Johnson, too, said that "Sweet Tea" would not have happened were it not for Saks and the institute.

"I'm still numb by the thought of there not being an Institute," he said. "It's unfathomable to me."

In fact, the college itself appears to agree. The Office of the Provost's recommendation to cut the program, notes that "given the Institute's extraordinary achievements and the lasting contributions it has made to the culture of Chicago and beyond, it is with regret that I recommend that the Institute be closed." But it does not explain why the Institute could be cut.

Many are quick to point out that Institute's impact extends beyond artistic circles and

Chicago academia. Its programs regularly draw everyday Chicagoans of all walks, and its end would be a loss to Chicago's LGBT and feminist communities, they say.

No final decision will be made until June.

Still, a decision to cut Albers' position before the "prioritization" was completed, caused

uproar at the school, Albers said. The decision was later reversed for the time being, but the fact that it preceded the end of the June process led some to believe the recommendations were set in stone.

Despite protest from students, faculty and Institute supporters, few speculate foul-

play in the recommendation to cut the Institute. If anything, they say, the priorities of the "prioritization" are simply confused.

But good faith may not save Columbia from loss of support of some its most renowned supporters.

Evette Cardona, a well-known local LGBT activist and Institute advisory board member, wrote Carter and announced her intention to withdraw financial support if the Institute is cut.

"I recall my dismay at the College's repeated failure to leverage these prestigious awards and honors to cultivate student recruitment, financial support and national visibility," Cardona wrote.

Allison believes that the Institute will survive regardless of Columbia's support. It is

simply too large and well-known to evaporate in funding cuts.

"I want to keep it in Chicago," Allison said. But a new home in a new city is also

possible.

In her 2007 interview for chicagogayhistory.org ( a project of WCT publisher Tracy Baim ) Saks described, with apparent pride, the inception of the Institute and the way it flourished.

"I think most people in their lives have jobs, and I have work," she said. "And I can't ever forget that."


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