Scholars and academicians implicitly accept and subscribe to the notion that reasoned discourse supported by empirical data is at the core of the academic enterprise. Theoretically, then, organizational change within the academy ought to be attainable through the use of rational processes based upon the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to define the scope of the problem and to identify logical solutions. However, the centuries-long attempt to achieve gender equity for women in institutions of higher education belies the truth of that belief in the power of reason as a catalyst for reforming American higher education.
Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, moving through the mid-twentieth century’s flurry of legal initiatives, and including two waves of scholarly studies and investigations of sexism on campus, the dominant characteristic of all the efforts to achieve gender equity in American colleges and universities has been reliance on reasoned discourse and data-based argumentation. Yet, today, only sixteen percent of all college and university presidents are women and less than one in four private research university faculty are women while well over fifty percent of all students are women.
This paper is a reflection on the limited successes achieved in the almost 150 years since the Seneca Falls Convention using traditionally accepted academic approaches to eradicate sexism in the academy. The origins of the thoughts, ideas, and opinions offered here are found in the work of the Senate Council Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women at the University of Kentucky (“UK”). That work represents one of several contemporary efforts to use reasoned discourse predicated on empirical data to stimulate progress toward gender equity on campus. As such, and placed in its historical context, the experience of this UK committee is a case study in the long tradition of effort to use logic and reason to attain equal opportunities for women in higher education. When combined with the recent efforts of eight other similar universities, the UK experience highlights the limitations of the traditional academic approach to brining about gender-related organizational change. Equally important, when viewed collectively, these nine institutional change efforts illuminate various elements of the deeply entrenched, nonrational sensibilities present on campuses that limit the effectiveness of reasoned discourse, empirical data, and even legal mandates as tools for the achievement of gender equity.
This Article briefly traces the early history of women’s struggle to secure access to educational and employment opportunities in America’s colleges and universities. A synopsis of the findings of the “First Wave” of investigations in the late 1960s and early 1970s of gender in the academy provides a context for the various legal strategies undertaken to secure gender equity in academia during the same time period. In the late 1980s a “Second Wave” of studies on gender on campus emerged. The results and implications of both a single institutional case study and a nine institution comparative study are reported and analyzed.