August 25, 2000

Consumer Studies faculty, students in limbo

During spring semester, the administration announced its intention to eliminate the Department of Consumer Studies. Students would be phased out over three years, and no new admissions would be allowed. The overt reason was stated to be lack of critical faculty mass. When the number of faculty in the department decreased within two years from eight to four, due to retirement and attrition, positions were not filled, despite aggressive requests to fill them. The department was then criticized by the administration for not having a critical faculty mass. This is an obvious catch-22. When vacancies are denied, there will be inevitable problems of critical mass. Tenured faculty were instructed to find a new home for themselves while those instructors without tenure, as well as staff, have to fend for themselves.

Move ahead eight months to August. Is the department closed or open? Everyone shrugs their shoulders with no answer. There was a "confidence" vote within the College of Food and Natural Resources at the end of spring semester not to proceed with the closure. I assume this information is sitting on the provost's desk. There has been no official response from that office about the state of the department. Meanwhile, faculty and instructors are "drifting" away to new homes and new jobs. Although I have found a potential future home for myself in the Women's Studies Program, I am still officially in limbo in Consumer Studies, not knowing the final fate of the department.

Where does this leave the 200-plus undergraduate students who remain and who have been promised that they can finish their degree within the Department of Consumer Studies? What is communicated to these students about the value of their identity within this University community? How do they cope with and integrate these issues into their personal and professional identity? Clearly, I have become incredibly sad about why the University places such a low priority on the needs of undergraduate students, specifically those in Consumer Studies.

Consumer Studies is 98 percent women. Closing this department is a gender issue, although I am sure that this would be flatly denied by the administration. The largest majority of this department are Apparel Marketing majors, a group of (predominantly) young women who will end up in corporate offices of retail firms. They will start with a salary of between $30,000 and $45,000. They expect to be earning $55,000 to $100,000 a decade after graduation. Not bad for a major deemed less than worthy to exist on this campus.

My question to the administration is this: Have we been falsely labeled as a major that is associated with a feminine (i.e., fashion) and less important "consumer" (i.e. Consumer Studies) orientation in a larger environment of "producers" such as the School of Management Computer Science, Engineering, biological sciences, etc.? I am certain the answer is yes. When administration buys into these negative stereotypes, departments are placed at risk for closure. The administration also protects its own interests by using these stereotypes (obviously in an undeclared manner) to give fuel to the fire of department elimination. What department will be next? I close with a statement about the proposed closure of Consumer Studies from an Apparel Marketing major:

"I think men devalue professions that are female-dominated because of general devaluation of women. Men unconsciously look at all forms of 'women's work' both inside the home and out as beneath them. As women try to achieve positions in this man-centric culture, they too adopt an opinion of female-dominated areas [Consumer Studies] as being beneath them. I think these unfair judgments prevalent in our society also filter through our education system."

associate professor,
Consumer Studies