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UMD students stage sit-in to protest proposed budget cuts

University of Minnesota Duluth students Teresa Mahnke (from left) Willow McGraw, and Olivia Westphal join other students staging a sit-in Thursday outside Chancellor Lynn Black's office in protest of the proposed elimination of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department. Dozens of students took part in the protest over the course of the day. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Dozens of University of Minnesota Duluth students staged a sit-in Thursday to protest potential changes to the university's Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department.

Holding signs that included phrases such as, "It's 2016, include us," students sat outside Chancellor Lynn Black's office from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., in addition to beginning an online petition.

The protest was organized by Feminist Consciousness United, a student organization formed in response to the proposed departmental changes that are expected to be part of $2 million in budget cuts UMD makes to academic programs this fall — at a time when the university has faced criticism over its treatment of the the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"It's been a slow accumulation of UMD targeting queer faculty and also female faculty," said Willow McGraw, a member of the Feminist Consciousness United.

UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said the sit-in shows the students' dedication and passion, and they were respectfully exercising their right to support their cause.

"Colleges are a place where that sort of skill building — asking questions, deepening your understanding, questioning the status quo — that's part of what we do here, that's part of what we teach here. It's encouraging to see students do that in a respectful manner," she said.

The department currently offers a Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) major and a minor, as well as a LGBTQ minor. The College of Liberal Arts is considering merging the WGSS and sociology departments as it considers options to reduce its budget by $1 million, part of the university-wide budget reductions. The final decisions on cuts are expected to be announced by the end of this month.

Feminist Consciousness United is requesting that WGSS remain an independent department within the College of Liberal Arts, and that three WGSS tenured faculty positions remain. The major and minors will continue to be offered if the WGSS and sociology departments are merged, but McGraw said the department will lose visibility and autonomy.

Having a separate women's studies department is "an integral part of a liberal arts university," he said. He added, "We're going to be just a program underneath another department and I'm assuming we'll be forgotten about."

Williams said that the changes under consideration won't affect only the WGSS Department. As part of its budget cuts, the College of Liberal Arts is considering organizational changes that would bring it from 11 departments to six or seven departments. The WGSS program "isn't at risk of elimination" and will continue to be offered as a major to students with the needed resources, she said — though not as its own department.

UMD is considering each academic program's enrollment in allocating resources. On average, Williams said, there are between 17 and 23 students majoring in WGSS. The department once had five tenured faculty positions; UMD is considering a model for the WGSS program that would be two tenured faculty and one full-time non-tenured faculty position.

Hannah Schleder, a WGSS and political science major and LGBTQ minor, pointed out that both WGSS and non-WGSS students were participating in Thursday's sit-in.

"The WGSS Department is something that helps everyone on campus, not just WGSS majors," she said. Schleder suggested that targeting the department because of the small number of students majoring in WGSS is misguided, noting that "there's a lot of people in many other disciplines that are taking our courses and learning about feminism and broadening their horizons."

Students at Thursday's sit-in said they're concerned that UMD is considering changing a department that teaches about the "identity" of people, offering classes about women and the LGBTQ community that both WGSS and non-WGSS students take.

"Why would you cut an identity department? We're the only department that is intersectionalities between race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, spirituality, the environment... It's the only department that addresses all of those," said McGraw, who is a WGSS and social work major and LGBTQ minor.

Students also said they were concerned about whether the changes might affect Duluth organizations. Caiti Marks, a WGSS and philosophy major, pointed out that many of the WGSS students volunteer for local women's shelters and other nonprofit organizations as a part of their coursework.

"Not only does this affect us as a campus, but it affects all of Duluth," McGraw said. "Organizations like PAVSA and Safe Haven depend on us for an influx of volunteers to support the community."

The students said they became aware of the potential changes to the department when UMD released its campus climate study last month. The study "found UMD to be racist, sexist, heterosexist, genderist," McGraw said, echoing the words of a consultant who spoke to the campus community last month about the study's findings.

McGraw pointed out that the university lost its LGBT-friendly designation last year. The loss of that designation came after the university dismissed former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller and her staff; a lawsuit and federal discrimination complaint later were filed against the university by Miller and others. The founding director of UMD's LGBT Services, Angie Nichols, also left the school last year and later sued UMD for discrimination based on her sexual orientation, among other allegations.

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