News

Stanford’s FemGen program has seen high turnover rates in past years. The Daily looked into why.

Nov. 30, 2021, 11:31 p.m.

In 2019, Adrian Daub, a German studies and comparative literature professor, ended his four-year term as the director of Stanford’s Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS). Such occurrences are not out of the ordinary — departments all across the University regularly experience departing professors and new incoming faculty. 

However, the department still remains unsuccessful in finding a permanent replacement director after beginning the search last year. 

The department eventually assigned Richard Meyer, an art history professor, to be the interim director. This year, Charlotte Fonrobert, an associate professor of religious studies and, by courtesy, of classics and German studies, is taking the position for a two-year term. 

Recently, FGSS has dealt with a high turnover rate within its faculty, especially at the directorship level. When asked why, Daub told The Daily that this instability is a result of circumstances beyond the program’s control, such as personal health issues professors have faced, as well as the innate structure of the program.

“It’s just an accident, but it’s an accident that reveals something deeper about the way inter-departmental programs at Stanford are run and set up,” Daub said.

FGSS used to be rather stable, according to Daub. For some time there was not much shift in the staff, as the program housed professors who taught the subject for many years. For instance, Monica Moore, the program director before 2013, joined Stanford in 1971. The current change in faculty could simply be the result of the preceding period of stability, with many professors retiring after an extremely long career at the university, Daub said.

Or perhaps, more importantly, is the fact that the structure of Stanford’s inter-departmental programs leads to highly-fluid faculty, Daub said. FGSS has no core faculty — all of its professors come from various other departments.

According to Joy Leighton, the public relations spokesperson for the School of Humanities and Sciences, it is important that the essential subject matter studied in inter-departmental programs are represented in the traditional disciplinary departments. Therefore, the University appoints faculty in departments who can contribute strongly to both the inter-departmental programs and their home departments.

Daub pointed out a disadvantage of such a system. The professors must teach a minimum hour of classes in their home department in order to keep their tenure. However, professors are not expected to teach in the inter-departmental programs, and these programs cannot request any class hour. They run on people’s commitment to the cause and being willing to donate their labor. Naturally, faculty prioritize work in their home departments.

“It leads to a kind of attrition effect,” Daub explained. 

If professors decide to shift their focuses away from an inter-departmental program or their home department workloads increase, there is nothing that the inter-departmental programs can do. The programs depend entirely on faculty members’ passion and willingness to contribute, according to Fonrobert.

“The challenge is to organize your teaching so that you can organize it to sustain the courses that you’re passionate about,” Fonrobert said, who also directs the Jewish Studies Program under the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. 

“It’s sometimes hard to sustain that because you’re pulled in various directions,” she added.

Faculty in FGSS may need to also dedicate a lot of time and effort to the program, making large sacrifices without much reward, Daub said. According to Daub, last year, Max Crandall, the associate director of FGSS, had to perform work on multiple responsibilities even though he was only paid for one.  

“I know of at least two previous faculty directors whose future at Stanford was seriously imperiled by the amount of time and effort they had to put into FGSS,” Daub said. “I don’t think people investing in the program should be disadvantaged.” 

To increase stability in faculty, the professors proposed several ideas. For Daub, departmentalization seemed to be the most direct solution, as it would solve the problem of professors worrying about other departmental commitments. Departmentalization would also attract additional professors to join the University who specialize in the field of study and have more time to devote to it, Daub added.

Still, Fonrobert offered an alternative perspective. She said she believes that the inter-departmental nature of the program should remain. For her, the immediate solution should be to continue the current search for professors. Hiring through the different departments with a note about the inter-departmental programs in the position description would help, she said, though interested professors may not have much time for the program.

There would be a more stable and guaranteed connection with other departments involved, she added. 

“The Inter-Departmental Programs are the glue that keep and nurture the interdisciplinarity in studies, and that I think is a good thing,”  Fonrobert said.

Moreover, Leighton confirmed that the School of Humanities and Sciences doesn’t “have plans to departmentalize the inter-departmental programs.”

Despite the high turnover rate, the number of students taking courses under FGSS, also known as FEMGEN, has been steadily growing. “FEMGEN 101: Introduction to Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies” is a large introductory course that attracts many students outside of the program, and “FEMGEN 103:  Feminist and Queer Theories and Methods Across the Disciplines” is often on the verge of oversubscription according to Daub, who added that classes about feminism in the queer community and racial minorities are also popular.

“There’s such wonderful people, students and faculty,” Fonrobert said.

“The people and interest in the subject have encouraged many professors to voluntarily spend time and effort in the program,” Daub added. “It is such willingness and passion that allowed FGSS to run smoothly for the past years.”

“We value the work of our IDPs and the faculty who teach in them. We recognize the wonderful leadership in the Programs in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Asian-American Studies,” Leighton said.

Isabel Cai '25 is an Academics writer for the News section. Contact Isabel at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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