Monday, January 3, 2011

We Haven't Come a Long Way, Baby

Once upon a time, a lifetime ago, I spent most of a spring and summer touring around the Southeast interviewing for jobs. Only two jobs outside the region ever garnered an application: Stephens College, in Missouri, and Hanover College, in Indiana. Stephens was a particularly memorable trip for a couple of reasons: they'd insisted that I fly into the tiny regional airport in Columbia (hello, Tom Nevers Field) versus ground transportation from St. Louis, reasoning that it would be more efficient, but they didn't count on an electrical storm that pinned me down in St. Louis for an extra five hours- or our pilot taking off through a thunderhead in a twelve seat commuter prop-jet. They also didn't count on my return flight from Columbia to St. Louis being cancelled, resulting in my barely making the last flight to Louisville that night.

I was not amused. Ten minutes after I got to campus, I just wanted to go home.

The situation when I arrived was one of, errr, decay. Private colleges, particularly single-sex colleges, have to fight for their bread. Several buildings were shuttered. Some had been sold; the college couldn't afford their operational expenses anymore. Questions about the library budget were met with evasion; the fact that they relied on the nearby public university to meet their students' research needs (partly because they couldn't or wouldn't fund minimal necessary technologies) was unacceptable from both institutional and accreditation standpoints. The enrollment was tanking. The endowment was crumbling.

In private higher ed, the endowment is do or die, and thus in 2010 Stephens found itself accepting a "challenge" from an alumna who dangled a million-dollar "gift" before them if the faculty and staff agreed to diet and lose a minimum total of 300lbs. by the beginning of 2011, and there was an additional bonus of $100K if the president lost 25lbs. . They contend that the 80 year-old alumna is interested in better nutrition and lifestyle habits, not superficial weight loss. I'm on board with the faction who believe that this is a completely irresponsible idea to which a women's college should subscribe in an age of increasing eating disorders among young women and girls.

I was shocked to learn, when I was a graduate intern in a women's college library, that they had once had a weight requirement for admissions. Some of the letters from the applicants' doctors describing them in condescending terms, if they were overweight, as having 'college potential' in spite of their lack of self-control and obvious laziness were appalling. Well, I guess everything old is new again- Stephens is about a half-step from a big chunk of endowment funding being tied to a similar requirement. It's setting a dangerous trend- society censures those who are considered 'less than average' in looks, so I wonder: is college, especially at women's colleges, supposed to return to an exclusive preserve of 'pretty girls'?

The alumna in question is 80 years old, five years older than my mother. That means she started college around 1947, when such attitudes were normal and pervasive. If you need a media illustration, rent "Mona Lisa Smile" and observe how the 'fat' character (Connie) is treated by some of her peers. She's a good person, talented musician, and a sweet, kind girl, but she's been indoctrinated to the notion that she's a second-class citizen because she's 'overweight and unattractive'...buying into it almost loses her the boy she'll eventually marry. It may seem cruel, but that mentality was still firmly in place in the Eighties; by sheer force of personality, I bulldozed my way past a small handful of bigoted junior high and high school teachers and fought my way through the overwhelming looksism of an SEC university to get an actual education, even if my social life was on the fringes.

Trust me, Stephens desperately needs the money. It's just that the conditions attached to it are degrading to women who are supposed to be role models of professional and educational attainment...proof that we haven't come as far as we thought, baby.

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