Scottish university draws ire for dismissing female gender studies lead

 Scottish university draws ire for dismissing female gender studies lead

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ST ANDREWS, Scotland (NYTIMES) – Students, staff and academics across the world are voicing their indignation after the University of St Andrews in Scotland failed to renew the contract of the female director of its Institute for Gender Studies, part of its philosophy department.

The move has raised questions about the underrepresentation of women in academia, particularly in a field of study focused on representation and identity.

Alison Duncan Kerr, an American philosopher, has been working for the prestigious university since 2017 on a temporary contract.

In 2018, she was contracted to establish the St Andrews Institute for Gender Studies, and in 2020 created a master’s degree programme in gender studies at the university. She designed, developed and initially taught the curriculum for that programme.

In an open letter, her supporters say that she had every reason to believe her work would result in a permanent position, but that instead, the university is dismissing her in June. Her tasks will be distributed to other staff members “none of whom has gender as a central research interest,” the letter says.

Before Kerr’s work at the university, there was no interdisciplinary gender studies programme at St Andrews. Her supporters say her work brought people across the university together to create a valuable first-of-its-kind programme.

“Alison has laboured far beyond the university’s official requirements,” the letter says.

In a statement, the university declined to comment on Kerr’s case but noted that those on fixed-term contracts are “fully aware that their contract may end.”

The university noted that the master’s programme in gender studies “is in very good hands,” and is currently recruiting students for next year.

Advocates for Kerr say the university planned to have two men who do not have the same background in the field of gender studies teach the course and head the institute. The university said that was inaccurate.

“Reports in the UK media that the director of gender studies at St Andrews has been ‘replaced by men’ are inaccurate and incorrect,” a spokesman said. Kerr is still in her post and under contract until June 2021, but is no longer teaching in the master’s programme.

That programme is now being run under the university’s Graduate School for Interdisciplinary Studies; the university said Kerr’s “duties are being covered by several colleagues, women and men, from disciplines across the university.”

It also noted that Morven Shearer, the director of the graduate school, is temporarily taking responsibility for the gender studies programme and that she was still in discussions about appointing a new director.

But its initial statement suggested that a male staffer would be overseeing the master’s programme Kerr established.

The open letter has drawn more than 1,500 signatures from students, staff and other supporters of Kerr who say the decision to not make her employment permanent is part of a broader issue in the philosophy department, at the university and in academia at large.

Her experience is “indicative of the multiple barriers faced in academia due to sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia etc.,” the very issues the institute she founded helped to explore, the letter said.

It has also ignited a campaign on social media, #StandwithAlison, which has seen an outpouring of support from fellow staff and students.

“St Andrews will continue to reap the rewards of Dr Alison Duncan Kerr’s work long after it kicks her out the back door,” wrote Zoe Shacklock, a lecturer in film studies at St Andrew’s.

“She has created a vital centre for inclusive and diverse research, and this decision is appalling.” Arantza Asali, currently a student in the master’s programme, said she “never imagined St Andrews would run this degree, receive the praise and tuition money it has gained, and then do this.”

“The neglect shown to our education and the well-being of the staff is unacceptable,” she wrote on Twitter.

Broader concerns about the underrepresentation of women in the field of philosophy worldwide have been raised many times in the past. And those who drew attention to the university’s decision to not renew Kerr’s contract point to the broader issues in its philosophy department.

According to the letter in her support, as of this month of the 35 members of the academic and research staff in the department, just 12 are women; of those 12 women, just five have a permanent position (one of which is part time), two are visiting scholars, three are professorial fellows who are not employed primarily by the university, and two are on temporary contracts, including Kerr.

The department’s 19 full-time staff members include just four women, and no permanent junior position is held by a woman. Of the department’s 57 PhD students, just 13 are women.

Academics around the world have voiced their support for Kerr on social media.

“Absolutely shameful, and part of a long list of redundancies of women and BAME scholars in recent years,” Camilla Mork Rostvik, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Leeds, posted on Twitter, using an acronym common in Britain for Black, Asian and “minority ethnic.”

“This is a profound injustice, as well as just an incredible mistake,” wrote Jonathan Ichikawa, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. “Her work is exemplary, and there is no one with appropriate expertise standing by to replace her.”

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