Posted by Patrick Bradley
Ken Ruscio…per se
Two and a half years ago Ken Ruscio was named president of W&L. In an interview posted on the W&L website in conjunction with the announcement of this, Ken Ruscio stated that women’s issues were at the top of his agenda. In another context, he even spoke of “striking a note of solidarity” with the women who had been adversely affected by the climate on campus. Ken Ruscio subsequently devoted the next two and a half years to studying the issue. Really, it took him two and a half years. Early in 2007 (nearly a year after being named president), he appointed a task force on women to study the issue. This committee released, after a year and a half, a 100+ page report that stated in no uncertain terms that there are “significant issues related to gender that need to be addressed.” (p.9) The committee also made it clear that “the situation requires official recognition” (p.9), and that “The most effective long-term action should be the formation of a standing committee on the status of women.” (p.10). The report also stated that there is a wide-spread feeling that the administration, and in particular the president, do not share the view that these issues exist and are matters of pressing concern. They place the onus for change, in no uncertain terms, squarely on the president’s shoulders: “The forcefulness and forthrightness of the President’s acknowledgement will determine the success of all subsequent efforts at improving the climate for women at Washington and Lee.” (p.9)
Yet somehow Ken Ruscio has now come to the conclusion that the concerns voiced by women (and men), and the incidents of gross sexual harassment reported, witnessed and suffered among the undergraduate, faculty, staff and administrative ranks, are not really women’s issues after all. On October 8th Ken Ruscio spoke before the W&L community to lay out his vision and recommendations for his Work-Life initiatives. Did he take this opportunity to give a ‘forceful and forthright acknowledgement’ of these gender issues, and to lay out steps to deal with them? No, he did not. Instead he used this town hall meeting to remove gender issues from the discussion altogether. He quoted from the Task Force on Women’s report to declare that these issues “are not women’s issues, per se.” (p.13) Those rapes that occur in university owned frat houses and their university sanctioned parties are not women’s issues. The fact that there are still professors on campus who make it clear that women are not welcome in their classes—not a women’s issue. The numerous and ongoing complaints registered about harassment perpetrated by members of the administration—not a women’s issue. The supervisors who are trained by university counsel to respond to complaints of sexual harassment by “removing the thin-skinned plaintiff,” a policy based on “the whole men are from Mars, women are from Venus thing” —not a women’s issue. Women faculty who are held captive by the unabashedly sexist remarks, attitudes, and decisions of male faculty and administrators, being told that “women of [their] generation are too sensitive,” being complimented for their “maternal” and “nurturing” contributions, being subjected to scrutiny in both job interviews and job evaluations about their private decisions concerning work and family—not a women’s issue.
Yes, Ken Ruscio has surprised us all. Those who said he lacked leadership, commitment, and initiative [i.e. those who wrote the report for his committee on women], were wrong. He has shown great leadership. Who else but a strong leader could take a 100+ page report (one that is entirely negative, that can find not one good thing to say about the status of women at W&L, that singles out the president for special blame), and find the one sentence in it that allows him to discount every other sentence in the report. Ruscio quotes from p.13 of the report:
“[M]any of the climate issues regarding women are not women’s issues, per se, but rather issues of community, inclusiveness and respect for individuals and other minority groups. [They] voiced many of the same concerns as women who feel excluded (p. 13).”
He uses that to prove, in his “Letter to the W&L Community” (October 8th, 2008) and his presentation on the 8th, that although, “women especially voiced concerns about the overall climate,” “the concerns were not limited to women.” And thus does the word “woman” makes its last appearance in his letter and his report and his discussion [except when he lists his, now defunct, committee: “Presidential Task Force on Women”]. Ken Ruscio, it must be noted, lifted that quotation above from page 13 of the Task Force on Women report, but failed to cite the conclusion of the paragraph in which it appeared:
“That does not mean they should not be addressed by a committee on the status of women, but rather that we as a University should have clear systems in place for addressing such community issues. For example, if the proposed standing committee on the status of women were to come across issues that seem to be broader, the committee should have an avenue for ensuring that these issues will be addressed by appropriate groups or officials.” (p.13)
He has managed, through selective reading and a coarse intellectual legerdemain that is disingenuous at best, to pronounce that, for all intents and purposes, the issue of women has been laid to rest. We need not speak of women’s issues. Doesn’t his new report say that their year-long study had made it clear to the committee that they weren’t really studying women’s issues at all? They were studying inclusiveness, and honor, and individuals, and [un-specified] minority groups, and community—but not women. This is, indeed, leadership. It takes a leader to so cynically and cowardly ignore the findings of his own committee, one he hand-picked with explicit orders to keep those who might gum up the works off, and then to proclaim that he is acting on the recommendations of that committee. Is there anyone who has read the report from the Task Force on Women who thinks that committee was really advocating that women’s issues should be dropped from the active lexicon of the discussion? I cannot believe that all those people who spoke to the committee and the outside consulting group, and those who worked so long on that committee, really believe that there is no warrant, no justification for looking at the concerns voiced by women [and men!] as women’s issues “per se.”
Ken Ruscio has managed to make the whole discussion of the negatively gendered climate at W&L disappear with one Latin phrase. Just like a character from the Harry Potter novels, he utters the Latinate spell, “PER SE,” and ‘poof’ these issues are no longer ‘intrinsically’ women’s issues, but just another issue that another “series of somethings” (his own characterization of his study of the situation) can resolve—as long, that is, if we rely as our beacon on the ever-ready two-headed god: ‘honor and civility.’ In fact, Ken Ruscio states quite clearly in his letter that he will first and foremost look to the past in dealing with these issues, proudly boasting, as if to comfort his flock, that his take on this all “derives its basic values of community and compassion from the past.” What he ignores, however, is his own Task Force’s finding that the past has not served W&L at all well on these very issues: “Washington and Lee University is not yet a place where it is easy to have a conversation about these issues,” (p.9). The Task Force, moreover, “heard many accounts of women feeling marginalized, silenced and excluded,” and concluded that these feelings were “pervasive” and “ubiquitous.” Ken Ruscio never cited those findings on October 8th. While Ken Ruscio may not be afraid to throw around a Latinate obfuscation, he certainly can’t come to grips with calling things by their proper names. Like the old way to identify a duck: if it harasses in a gendered way, and intimidates in a gendered way, and discriminates in a gendered way—it’s gendered. And if your own committee takes a year and a half of their time to tell you it’s gendered, then, damn it, it’s gendered.
So, I suppose everyone over on campus can give a sigh of relief that W&L doesn’t have to deal with all those “too sensitive,” “men-hating,” “femi-nazi” “bitches” complaining about women this and women that [FYI: these are just terms that have been unapologetically used by W&L faculty, administrators, and media]. Or, someone can call Ken Ruscio on his cowardice and his bullying, and let him know that, while these are women’s issues, we all suffer if they are not dealt with. W&L is a major employer in our area. W&L trumpets its ideals of community, honor, and civility ad nauseam. W&L places outsized emphasis on concepts of leadership. At the same time, W&L sponsors fraternity parties that are community hazards when underage high school students frequent them and young women must be wary of sexual assault when attending. W&L is embarrassed on a perennial basis by scandals such as ‘The Bracket’, ‘The List’, ‘Idaho’. It’s time W&L and its president show some forceful and forthright leadership in facing up to these issues, calling things by their proper names, looking to the root causes, and opening up the discourse and climate to allow mature and diverse points of view in. If they do, there’s even a good chance the institution will survive.