Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Iowa disconnect?

One of my favorite college administrators had a lot of interesting axioms, which those of us who worked with her believed were largely of her own creation. But now I realize, they were just old. Like nineteenth century old in the case of one of my (and I believe her) favorites: a tub on its own bottom. The exact phrase is "every tub on its own bottom" and is apparently used all the time at Harvard (of course). It means a decentralized economic system and is employed up by university administrators to describe the way each unit is in charge (for better or worse) of its own finances--its own success, and arguably its own demise. She used it in reference to the athletic department at my undergraduate DI school.
I have, being the good marxist feminist (kind of) that I am, taken a cultural interpretation of the phrase as well, and translated it to mean a unit of the university that is so financially different than others that it has its own, exclusive culture. And this is certainly true of athletics. For example, driving into Amherst, Massachusetts a few weeks ago I noticed that a lot of the athletic department offices were located in one of the town's strip malls. "Very tub-on-its-own-bottom" I thought to myself. Can't even be on campus.
Athletics at any DI school is ETOB (for a while Vanderbilt was an exception--though I am not sure if that is true anymore). And it is certainly true at the University of Iowa, which made big news today for an entirely (but not quite, as I will argue in a moment) different reason.
As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Iowa [is]the first public university—and only the second college in the United States—to ask applicants about their sexual orientation and gender identity.[...]Officials at Iowa believe the new questions will allow them to better serve gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, as well as those who are questioning their sexual identity."
There was mention of data tracking, etc., etc. But the decision was also pitched as a way to make LGBTQ students more comfortable and to make other non-LGBTQ students more aware of their potential peers.
"We want students to feel we are receptive to and sensitive to their lifestyle and their description of themselves," said Michael Barron, the assistant provost for enrollment management.
Let me say first before I go into what I should have lead this post with, that I applaud Iowa for being so seemingly progressive in its desire to reduce the stigma around LGBTQ students, to make an open effort at inclusion and providing support, and for hopefully being an example for other institutions (it's the 21st century and kids are coming out when they're, well, kids so it seems higher ed may be a bit behind but...).
But in a very tub-on-its-own-bottom style, the Iowa athletic department which is indeed a part of the university, maintains a pink locker room for its visiting football teams. There is no mistaking that message. Iowa athletics is telling its visitors that they are pansies, fags, feminine, girls, weak, and simultaneously implying that Iowa, of course, is not.  The shiny pink locker room complete with pink urinals (brought in from Europe) and pink showers is no theory of psychological passivity in practice. It is a shaming technique. The football locker room is site which upholds a particular version of masculinity--one that does not allow for any femininity or queerness.
Again, I don't think people in student services and admissions or Iowa as an institution is bad (and yes, I'm biased). But I think there's a mixed message here. And I think it's because the athletic department at Iowa and almost everywhere else is too separate from the university community. This issue may seem minor in comparison to say, a massive child sexual abuse scandal, but I think it's a good reminder that if a university is expressing a commitment to a certain mission or espousing a principle or philosophy, that all the tubs have to be on board.