The Battle Over the Women’s Center


Nassau Weekly Article (5/15/86)

By Randy Schoenberg

After months of meetings, a protest, a sit-in, and then more meetings, the Women’s Center members have been unable to get Dean of Students Eugene Lowe to accept one of the Center’s basic characteristics: consensus decision-making.

Lila Karp, outgoing Director of the Women’s Center believes that the University has muddled the issues of the autonomy of the director and the decision-making process to hide the administration’s objections to the way she has run the Center. “Perhaps what is underneath all of this is that because I as an administrator have from time to time disagreed with other administrators on certain issues—such as all women meetings and the pro-life task force—what they are really saying is they don’t want disagreement.”

Lowe counters that the issue is not how political the Center is, but how it is run. “Te notion of the Center being less critical or less feminist,” he says, “is not an issue. The issue is administrative. I don’t believe that by definition there is one way to run a Center.” Although he does not find fault in the way Karp has run the Center, Lowe does not want to guarantee that it be run similarly in the future.

Karp believes that consensus decision-making is the way to insure that minority opinions not be left out. “To be honest,” she says, “I do not understand what all this talk about the problems with consensus decision-making is about. Consensus decision-making is another way of coming to decisions; it differs from majority rule.”

Lowe says, “I wanted to have it understood that the director had the ability to act apart from a consensus.” The women of the Center however, are not convinced that Lowes objection is just an issue of the director choosing which way she would like to run the Center. Arlene Keizer, a sit-in participant, believes that the University wants more control of the activities of the Center. “What the University wants to guarantee,” she says, “is that even if something did not pass the Women’s Center consensus they could make the Women’s Center do it.”

Whedbee Mullen, who participated in the sit-in and is a member of the newly-formed Women’s Center Study Committee, agrees, “They are definitely threatened by consensus decision-making. They want it to be run by a director, to initiate and decide what goes on at the Center.” Another one of the six who protested in Lowe’s office, L.A. Kauffman sees it even more critically, “The University administration’s view of democracy is hostile to democratic institutions and administrative hierarch on the Women’s Center. They want a dictatorial director. I don’t know how any programs can come out of the Women’s Center without student input.”

In fact, Karp has been very successful with the consensus decision-making process. “Over the last eight years I have never had to use authority over any consensus,” she says. An person many attend the Center’s weekly business meetings and participate in the decision-making process. Katrina Browne, a freshman, says, “I went to my first meeting two months ago and I was immediately welcomed as part of the decision-making process.” The meetings attract over twenty women. Karp thinks that her method of directing the Center has been beneficial to the students, and hopes that her successor will continue with it. “The students and any director chosen should feel that they have the right to make decisions that go on here.”

Consensus decision-making is outlined in the Center’s ‘Statement of Purpose.’ “We discovered after two meetings that the ‘statement of purpose’ was under serious evaluation,” says Sharon Holland, a junior who was one of the six women who participated in the sit-in.

The ‘statement of purpose,’ which has existed since Karp became the director of the Women’s Center eight years ago, explicitly states, “The Women’s Center is a feminist organization whose primary purpose is the protection and advancement of women’s rights and the promotion of greater participation by women in all areas of society.” It goes on to describe the method of decision-making which the Center has adopted. “Decisions are made by consensus: a process of discussion leading to agreement rather than a majority vote that overrules minority opinion.” The students originally asked Lowe to guarantee that the ‘statement of purpose’ would not be questioned by the study. In fact, they refused to discuss any other specifics until the statement was accepted.

Lowe refused to give them any immediate guarantees on the ‘statement of purpose.’ Kauffman describes his response, “the best we could get out of Dean Lowe was some feeble statement that [the Center] clearly represent (sic) the views of recent members.” Lowe says that he did not disagree with the feminist, affirmative action nature of the Center, but objected to the insistence on consensus decision-making. “The members of the Women’s Center have thought about themselves as more of a student organization than a university organization,” he says. “There is difference in resources, since their budget is taken from the general operating funds of the University.”

With the negotiations at a standstill, the students planned the protest and sit-in which resulted in a meeting the next day with Lowe and President William Bowen. According to Mullen, “Bowen put pressure on Lowe to do something.” Lowe met with the Women’s Center representatives on Monday, May 5 in the evening to hammer out an agreement. The resulting document was to be signed on Tuesday morning, but after thinking more about it Lowe proposed additional changes which were accepted, and the agreement was signed that afternoon. The agreement says that the study report “will presuppose a feminist, affirmative action focus for the Center.” Of the role of the director in the decision-making process, it says, “The director must be aware that her dual responsibility is to represent the consensus of students to the Administration and to represent Administrative policy to the students.”

Disputes have arisen in the past that the feminist nature of the Center has unfairly excluded a part of the community. The study conducted by the ten members of the Women’s Center Study Committee will investigate the ‘image problem’ that has plagued the Center as a feminist institution. The active participants in the Women’s Center do not represent the mainstream, admits Karp. “They represent the needs of the mainstream of Princeton,” she says, “but not all women at Princeton are part of a forward-moving society when it comes to feminism.” Mullen says, “It’s difficult to be a feminist at Princeton.” Kauffman feels that feminists are not the only ones with an image problem. “Princeton University has an image problem,” she says. “It is male dominated; the old boy network still exists; the ration of tenured female faculty is abysmal; the ration of undergraduates is unacceptable; the sexual harassment policy is weak at best. When you’re talking about a place like Princeton, you need a feminist Women’s Center.”

Karp believes that while the Women’s Center has made many contributions already—the Women’s studies Program and better on-campus lighting, to name a few—its presence is still necessary. “I think that there is a myth amongst many persons on campus that because women have been here since 1969 they are perfectly integrated into the life of this campus and therefore there are no more issues. You cannot over fifteen years change attitudes of persons associated with a University that was for so long all-male, any more than you can rid sexism over the world at large. Sexism has its manifestations which need watching and need change. The Women’s Center is the place to play the role of educator and watch over a community that isn’t quite as sensitive to issues concerning women’s needs as it might be.”

The study committee will complete its report by October 31 of this year. Then a search committee will be formed to find a new permanent director for the Center. Whitcomb says that she hopes to have someone hired by April 1, 1987. The ten members of the study committee will also be asked to be on the search committee. Although the students had asked that the members of the search committee be announced this spring, Lowe reserves the right to add more members to the search committee next year. “We wanted the search committee formed now,” says Mullen, “so that seniors would have a say as to who would be on the search committee.”

Karp wonders what the search committee will look like next year. “My concern about the search,” she says, “is that students do not yet know what persons will be placed onto the search committee in addition to those on the study committee. I hope those persons who will be placed on the search committee in the future will be members of the community who are sympathetic to the concepts of the Women’s Center, sympathetic to the valuable work at the Women’s Center over the years, and knowledgeable about the Women’s Center and feminism.”

Lowe says that he will use the search committee only in an advisory role. “I am the one appointing the administrator. I will ask the committee to give me an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of certain people.”

Overall, the Women’s Center activists have been very critical of the way Lowe has handled their requests. The Daily Princetonian reported on May 5, “He said their aggressive approach had partly contributed to this reticence,” and quoted Lowe as saying, “Their presupposition has too often been one that assumes confrontation as the fundamental mode of dialogue.” Karp says, “I think it was a mistake for Dean Lowe to call the Women’s Center participants aggressive in their efforts at negotiation. In doing so, I think he fell into one of the most common traps of sexism. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall him calling divestiture students aggressive.” Lowe responds, “Some of the letters were not cast in a form to have discussions. They were categorical and didn’t allow for any give and take.” Kauffman says, “The tone of the meetings was anything but confrontational. He can’t be dealt with.” Holland says, “He refuses to react until you push against a wall.”

The six students who sat-in at Lowe’s office are awaiting a decision on their punishment, which is not expected to be too severe. Karp says that the protest was intelligent. “In light of many of the changes that have occurred since the sit-in—a larger study group, and acceptance of the Women’s Center statement of purpose—and in light of the fact that students were holding discussions since March, I would say the sit-in was a very intelligent move.”

The study committee has ten members, including three Women’s Center members, Assistant Dean of Students Muriel Whitcomb, and Assistant Dean of Students Rochelle Robinson, next year’s interim director of the Women’s Center.

Originally, Lowe had instructed Whitcomb to conduct the study herself, but after the Women’s Center members became more vocal in their complaints about student involvement, Whitcomb and Lowe suggested that the study be done by a group. Karp says, “I am extremely pleased that one person is not any more going to be responsible for studying the Women’s Center’s past and its future. I think a decent compromise has occurred now that the study group has been enlarged to include persons chosen by the Women’s Center members and Dean Lowe.”

Today at 4:00 in Whig Hall the Women’s Center Study Committee will hold an open forum to discuss the needs of Princeton women with the community at large.

[“I think it was a mistake for Dean Lowe to call the Women’s Center participants aggressive. He fell into one of the most common traps of sexism.”—Lila Karp]

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