Profit-driven metrics threaten the mission of gender, sexuality and diversity studies

When Florida’s Republican Governor, Ron de Santis’s administrators of the liberal arts New College abolished its gender studies program, La Trobe University posted a job for a permanent position in gender, sexuality and diversity studies (GSDS), where I work. It was the first time since the name of the department was changed from women’s studies, in 2004, that a continuing position had been advertised. As I write, the University of Melbourne and Deakin University have also publicised positions for gender studies and gender and sexuality studies respectively.

I should be relieved. After all, La Trobe University did attempt to close our program down in 2012, and other universities have also had their moments of shutting programs and introducing them back as minors, before making a return to backing them as majors now. Historically, there is good reason to be anxious about the future of GSDS and related programs elsewhere.

The pattern of targeting so-called gender ideology and abolishing gender studies programs has been a feature of the rise of the right in Europe and beyond since at least the turn of the century. Against this pattern and in a global context in which politicians are asked the specious question of how to define ‘woman’, where the banner of speaking for women has become aligned with Nazis to fuel anti-trans sentiment, and attacks on gender, sexuality and critical race theory are eroding the much fought-for challenge to the biases of the Western canon, it is imperative to strengthen such marginal interdisciplinary fields of study.

As it happened, I was on long service leave when the selection process for the La Trobe position for lining up interviews began. As the longest standing and only remaining dedicated staff member in the program, I offered to be on the selection committee for the job; apparently my leave had precluded me from fulfilling this role. That’s understandable. Leave ought to suspend one’s professional position and duties for its duration.

The fact is, though, I was openly taking leave to catch up on research and writing. This is not uncommon in academia. My situation reflects navigating the brokenness of a bloated bureaucracy. The sector is so shattered that university staff in Australia, the UK, and the US have been going on strike due to untenable workloads, precarious job security, and in protest of the profit-driven directives that now govern higher education. When we write articles like this one, we often do so in our own time, and for our commitment to public education in general and the areas of study we are attached to in particular.

So, I write about university metrics — how we measure the worth of scholars and their work —not so much in my professional role as a senior lecturer nor as a representative of La Trobe University or any of its departments: I write primarily as a citizen using my public reason to speak to anyone who can read this.

I’m relying on the distinction between private and public reason that philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed in his famous essay, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ Yes, Kant was a well-off white male with dodgy racial politics to say the least. Nonetheless, his schema is useful for navigating the way in which my professional and public selves can be distinguished from one another, while also prompting thought on how they may intersect, when discussing how best to measure academic worth.

Speaking within one’s professional role — which Kant calls private reason — requires abiding by the institution’s mission and rules. This isn’t hard for me. I’m here for La Trobe University to make ‘a positive difference to the lives of our students’ — though I’m not sure if we always see eye to eye in how we define that. Anyhow, both the institution and I want more students to enrol, and we both proclaim to be great believers in rigorous scholarship and sharing ideas. Even within my professional role, I don’t believe I am transgressing the university’s mission in questioning the institution’s metrics.

In my professional role, I am also obligated to align with La Trobe’s visionary strategy that claims to play to ‘our strengths in teaching and research’. Here’s where things get trickier. For employees, metrics for assessing the strength of one’s teaching and research are mostly quantified in terms of bums on seats, accrual of grants, and publications in an A1 category for books and Q1 category for journal articles. On the face of it, nothing is wrong with this. There would be no university without students; in a sector without adequate public funding, grants have become necessary for some research; and assessing scholarship does need standards and protocols for peer review.

In a sector with a relatively inelastic demand, it’s hard to imagine that anyone but an academic superstar could bring more students to a course. Yet, there are ways in which the university could signal that the gender, sexuality and diversity studies program exists. We could also capitalise on bringing more enrolments by advertising our courses to the entire cohort of students to study what human resources speak would call diversity equity and inclusion (DEI). These are not my preferred terms for learning about difference, discrimination and oppression; I find most DEI policies tokenistic insofar as they tend to conserve structures of power rather than challenge them.

I have repeated to successive decision makers over many years that student feedback tells us that GSDS subjects accomplish more for dealing with injustice than any three-hour workshop or ticking the right answer in multiple choice compliance questions on DEI university policy. This type of material is best delivered by someone who can execute an interdisciplinary and intersectional approach to difference, and is attentive to how lived experience, activist history and counter-canonical debates about knowledge bear significance on what matters in teaching and research in our program and beyond.

There is a lot bearing down on how such programs uphold our counter-canonical heritage. I am afraid that prevailing university metrics are not as well equipped as some decision-makers presume them to be for choosing among so many appointable candidates. How do selection panellists outside the field, for example, measure the work of someone whose publications may have gender and race in their titles, but their content does not carry the critical lens and heritage of our fields of study? University metrics also privilege certain types of research over others, where academics are discouraged from writing to the broader public and activist oriented journals like Overland, because this type of work does not earn the status of excellence in research. Activist scholars are often at a disadvantage not just on metrical grounds, but because their work appears as overly partial and political to people who do not work in these fields.

Investment into interdisciplinary and intersectional scholars with connections to social movements provide greater returns to students, the university, and society in general, than hiring a scholar who is grounded in a single discipline and studies identity as if classifications of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability were not politically and historically connected. Familiarity with the heritage of GSDS and cognate fields like cultural studies, Indigenous studies, queer theory, feminism, trans studies and disability studies is therefore essential.

With enormous respect for those who spend the hours and secure grants to undertake research, it’s also important to be wary of how industry partnerships and funding frameworks can compromise the questions asked or produce an assembly line of collaborators in institutes, where research can end up producing information we already know. For example, we do not need to keep proving racism, (hetero) sexism and transphobia exist. This is the baseline — there is no need to keep justifying one’s existence or worth when fighting for rights and addressing responsibilities.

As many of us have been arguing for decades, researching how discrimination and oppression have been embedded and still function through governance and power (including social, national and international relations) gives us a better shot at working on ways to transform the culture and structural conditions that have produced and maintain inequality. Some forms of transformative work, however, can sound a bit too radical for grant assessors, or more to the point have been subjected to ministerial vetoes. The current government has put limits on these vetoes in August 2023. It remains to be seen what transformative research will be opened by this.

Meeting the Australian Research Council’s national interest test is not easy when work is anti-colonial, or challenges power structures embedded in laws governing property relations, and/or ideals of normativity structured within dominant understandings of gender, race, sexuality and ability. While ethics clearance is essential, this sometimes means that researchers shy away from much needed inclusion in their work of participants who are under eighteen, are Indigenous, or have experienced trauma, for example. So, while grants have become fundamental to running universities, counting on them to produce work that contests the grounds upon which national interest is defined, or can justly involve understudied participants, can be challenging. Researchers do find ways to secure funds for transformative projects, but an absence of grants on a cv or within a program could reflect choosing other pathways for research rather than a failure to secure money.

A more troubling aspect of measuring outputs concerns instances when highly ranked publishers and journals get things wrong. Meeting definitions of research and peer review is supposed to handle quality-assurance of content. It makes sense that somebody outside a field of study would not measure the worth of research and argument in the same way as an expert inside the field. Peer review is also supposed to ensure that theoretical and methodological differences can be assessed in ways that account for divergence in base assumptions, while showing familiarity with key concepts and rules and procedures that govern debate in a field of inquiry. Yet, when it comes to GSDS’s objects of analysis, and the theoretical and methodological conversations published and aired over the decades, the level of ignorance regarding the intellectual and activist heritage of our work extends beyond de Santis’ administrators and the stokers of culture wars who call for our demise.

To illustrate, take the notorious ‘Tuvel Affair’. Proclaiming good intentions, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel wrote in Hypatia an article entitled ‘In Defence of Transracialism’ in which she equated the gender transition of American celebrity Caitlin Jenner with what was dubbed transracialism in the case of Rachel Dolezal (who had claimed to be ‘culturally black’ after being exposed for trying to pass as Black and Native American). The affair reached the public sphere after the submission of an open letter to the journal calling for the article’s retraction. While the letter could have been better worded, I believe it was warranted to call into account the lack of engagement with fields of inquiry that take race and (trans) gender as their object of study. I would add that the taken for granted use of a highly debated concept like social construction also reflects poorly on the peer review process. I would be very concerned if this article’s scholarly value was measured only in terms of its publication in a Q1 journal.

More recently and alarmingly, Oxford University Press defended its peer review process when responding to an open letter calling for accountability regarding the publication of the book, Gender-Critical Feminism. The author, Holly Lawford-Smith, is a high-profile anti-trans activist and academic who spoke at Posie Parker’s transphobic #LetWomenSpeak rally in Naarm/Melbourne, attended by Nazis who were Sieg Heiling in front of a big banner stating ‘Destroy Paedo Freaks’. I have already argued that distinguishing between one’s professional role and public opinions is important. This, however, does not mean incitement to hatred is ok. The University of Melbourne, who employs Lawford-Smith, has cleared her of any misconduct for speaking at the rally, while Lawford-Smith has pursued a worksafe complaint against the institution. I believe universities are yet to develop the means to discern how best to deal with the collision between one’s professional roles, freedom of expression and what constitutes discriminatory public opinions. But what about Lawford-Smith’s research and scholarship? Gender-critical feminism, as the open letter states, subscribes to dangerous assumptions based in the long-discredited idea of biological essentialism and promotes the idea that ‘trans people do not and should not exist’. These ideas are factually wrong and ethically deplorable. However, university metrics would classify Gender-Critical Feminism with an A1 category.

To contrast through my own experience, I was compelled to battle for over two years to receive an A1 classification for my book, Democracy in Difference: debating key terms of gender, sexuality race and identity,  a peer-reviewed, open access book, with an International Book Standard Number, blurbed and used by internationally renowned academics in a variety of fields from comparative literature to history and Indigenous Studies, and deemed eligible for ERA (Excellence in research for Australia) by La Trobe’s research publications team. The consequence of the initial rejection of an A1 classification is one that affected not just my scholarly status; it had also negatively impacted the calculation of my workload. I was compelled to take on extra teaching while my appeal for research points was still debated. It is difficult to discern how discretionary powers had been used from above, but one thing remains clear: university metrics can be used to manipulate agendas for backing specific types of scholarship, fields of research and disciplinary programs, and sometimes get things wrong.

I wrote the book because of problems in evaluating explicitly political scholarship: speaking across disciplines, navigating relations between knowledge and power, and discerning differences between the public and private domains are troubled by difficulties involved in building a shared vocabulary for debating how any of us might approach how we become marked by power relations that condition our differences and chances in life. I was inspired by cultural studies luminary Raymond Williams’ book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, published in 1976. While the book has been used by many students, my target audience are more so aimed at other academics and activists who take for granted the conceptual, methodological and framing foundations from which they carry out their own work.

We are nowhere near altering the academic traditions that spurred our entry into the ivory tower. GSDS and cognate area studies emerged from questioning presumed concepts like objectivity and value neutrality, drawing from theoretical and activist perspectives and traditions of the oppressed. This heritage has been building a critical toolbox in order to better engage with issues that range from determining how positionality and objectivity matters in different spaces from journalism to science, to accounting for and transforming facile performances of ‘both sides-ism’ in what we witness in much media coverage of the genocidal assault on Palestine today. Unlike dominant disciplines in the academy, GSDS and cognate area studies have never pretended to be non-partisan. Our scholarship was borne to redress the cultural and structural biases embedded within the centuries old Western university to develop scholarship that can better account for itself and be accountable to others.

The religious and elitist heritage of European universities has been imported into this settler colony called Australia: programs like GSDS, cultural studies, Indigenous studies and critical race studies began springing up in the academy between the 1960s and 1980s to expose and contest the classism, racism, colonialism, sexism, ableism, hetero and cis normativity, planted in the Western canon. From the framing of research questions to the types of texts that are considered worthy of study, our programs cultivated corrective lenses and counter-memories to what has been too often left unquestioned in academic work. This is reflected in our curriculum, and I would hope that anyone making decisions about our staff and program would appreciate the importance of literacy not just across multiple fields of inquiry but also address the heritage that follows Tanganekald, Meintangk and Boandik First Nations scholar, Irene Watson’s anti-colonial provocation to ‘take aim at normativity itself’.

Unfortunately, the entry of programs such as ours into the academy has upset the guardians of traditional values and the Western canon to such an extent that they have been crying for decades that political correctness has taken over standards in scholarship and turned the university into a hotbed of left-wing indoctrination. De Santis’s move to close gender studies at New College exemplifies the threat that programs like us pose to conservative and right-wing influence at universities. The current job advertisements in our area studies could not have come at a more critical juncture.

In a misguided attempt to remain neutral and apolitical in applying metrics to job candidates, research and curriculum, decision-makers fail in assessing what kind of work the university needs to meet the crises of the world today. If the general metrics of the university is privileged over how the eye to ensure the critical edge and counter canonical heritage of such programs can be carried forward, we will be facing the heartbreaking reality that our programs won’t need a Republican governor to enact their demise. Narrow sighted, profit-driven agendas will do that work instead.


Image: Ted Eytan

Carolyn D'Cruz

Carolyn D'Cruz is a senior lecturer in Gender Sexuality and Diversity studies and is currently on long service leave to catch up on writing .

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