MSU Cuts Women-Only Resources; Students Respond

Monday, September 5, 2016, 12:34 pm
Rosalind Arch

Photo: Amy Berry and Alixandra Vanbuskirk

The last few months have marked a period of rapid change for the University and the student body, faculty, staff, and community members it serves. The Women’s Lounge, which has been open since 1925 has locked its doors, promising to reopen soon as an all-access study lounge, unlike the previous space, identified by a sign outside its door as a “quiet, secure place for women.”

The Women’s Resource Center has disbanded, and students are now redirected to the general Office of Student Affairs and Services, while the old space is now home to MSU’s new WorkLife Office. The Michigan State Women’s Healthcare Clinic has also closed.

These changes have created controversy over the need for “women-only” spaces, and students don’t seem to be giving up without a fight. “MSU has taken away our study lounge, a safe space for many survivors, our resource center…MSU women are not respected, not given equitable treatment, and not taken seriously,” says MSU Senior Alyse Maksimosky.

Citing the loss of two physicians, and major financial losses, the Michigan State Women’s Healthcare clinic notified its patients it would be closing its’ doors for good. This facility, located inside The Sparrow Professional Building in Lansing, has been serving women in the Greater Lansing area as an OBGYN clinic for over twenty years. “It was a small practice,” Says Jason Cody, Michigan State’s Public Affairs Specialist. “We lost two physicians, one to retirement and one to another job. It was already small, and losing $100,000 a year. There was simply no way it could remain open.”

“This was not a clinic that was in Olin or serving students, specifically,” continues Cody. “Most students don’t switch doctors when they come to MSU. Its hard to tell you the impact on students was 0. There could have been a student being seen, but it wasn’t a women’s health clinic geared towards students, it was specifically OBGYN related.”

The Women’s Resource Center was located on the third floor of the MSU Union, its mission to serve women by providing “education programs, workshops and conferences focused on topics of gender equity, leadership and professional development, intersectionality, and work/life issues.” The office was responsible for advising two student groups: Successful Black Women of MSU and the Women’s Initiative for Leadership Development.

“The Women’s Resource Center was a great place for women on campus to find resources,” says former employee Maggie Chesbrough. “I think it needed better funding so that they could reach a larger audience of students, but having the University get rid of the Center shows me that they don’t value the work we did.” Chesbrough, who started as in intern at the WRC and was later hired in as a student editor and organizer asserts that “the closing of the Resource Center reflects the values that Michigan State holds.”

The space was reallocated as home to the University’s new WorkLife Office. “The Women’s Resource Center was not solely a student resource center. A large amount of clientele were faculty and staff,” says Cody. “The new WorkLife Office was created earlier this year to focus solely on employees and helping them navigate the myriad of issues they may have, from professional development, to health, physical, emotional support. The Women’s Resource Center and the Family Resource Center are both now rolled into this office.”

Cody reports that some services will continue to be offered, such as the scholarships for women and the Women’s Initiative for Leadership Development program (WILD). “The Office of Student Affairs is also going to continue to look at opportunities and resources geared towards students. It will still work with the Women’s Council to offer resources and opportunities to female students.” The Women’s Council is a “student group on campus which aims to enhance the quality of women's lives on campus and provide a safe community in which all persons can work collectively to improve the status of women.”

Michigan State’s decision to close the Women’s Study Lounge has sparked many emotional reactions from those it served, and drawn national attention. As M-Live reported, the closure was announced just days after a complaint was filed by Mark Perry, a U of M Flint faculty member and self-proclaimed men’s rights activist.

Perry’s complaint requested that the University investigate gender discrimination against men due to the Women’s Lounge in the Student Union. “As a publicly-funded University, it seems to be a clear violation of federal law according to Title IX, which prohibits that anyone be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” wrote Perry. Two days later, the University quietly closed the lounge. “[The decision] wasn’t made and done because of him, not solely,” says Cody.

As many students quickly pointed out in the wake of this decision, Michigan State has mishandled a number of Title IX investigations in the past. According to at least one study, it also has a higher rate of sexual assault than the national average.

“MSU has never once taken responsibility for their mishandling of sexual assault cases--of which they were found at fault by the federal government,” says Alyse Maksimosky. In 2015, The United States’ Department of Education’s Office (for) Civil Rights’ report found that MSU mishandled at least two student sexual assault cases. According to Maksimosky, the numbers are higher. "My friends have been raped on this campus and their attackers have received next-to-no punishment. Even after their attackers admitted to the attack, their claims are still "alleged sexual assault" and dismissed as "sexual misconduct"."

“It boils down to federal law,” says Cody, “which very clearly states about providing services to both men and women. We have had other male and transgender students who had raised concerns before, so our title IX office started taking a better look at this. After discussions with the president, the decision was made in May, that we would convert the study lounge to an all access lounge.”

Student activists in favor of reinstating the lounge plan to take these objections seriously. “We are actively seeking marginalized women to take center stage in the planning and organization of this protest,” says Maksimosky. The protesters aim to transform the lounge into a space that will welcome trans, queer and gender non-conforming students. The exclusion of male students, however, seems to be a different matter.

“Here, on a campus where sexual violence and harassment is prevalent and where cases of sexual violence and harassment are mishandled, women need a place to not be distracted by such things in order to be productive students,” says Alyssa Young, MSU senior. “Men have simply not had the sexual harassment or discrimination on campus to warrant a men's only lounge.”

So, what happened in the past when men entered the Women’s Lounge? Most students say: “nothing.”

“I do know that even when men would enter the lounge, which happened somewhat frequently, there was very little policing of the space. I know of men who would go in there for class experiments or other reasons and even then no one would ever kick them out or question their presence in the lounge,” reports Abbey Peters, a senior at MSU. “I think that attitude toward policing should remain - you don't know how someone identifies just by looking at them, so you shouldn't feel entitled to ask someone to leave based on what you think you know about their gender. But that doesn't mean we should stop making an effort to respect the space as a lounge for women of all kinds.”

Maksimosky is responsible for a Facebook page called “Take Back the Women’s Study Lounge,” a space that has since grown into a place for students to unite begin a conversation, and initiate a protest not only to take back the lounge, but to transform it into a more inclusive space.

“I was raped my sophomore year and I have PTSD because of my assault which means I'm frequently, almost constantly, in a state of hyper-vigilance,” says Abbey Peters. “Certain places on campus make me more anxious and afraid than others - the building where he lived in … the building where his major has all of their classes, cafeterias I've bumped into him in…but I knew it was incredibly unlikely I'd run into him in the women's lounge so you could say the space was extremely important to me.”

“The women’s lounge was my safe place when I felt unsafe on campus,” says MSU freshman Bri. “During my first semester at MSU, I was physically assaulted by a young man on campus. I called the police, filed a report and they didn't do anything to help me. I felt alone and afraid, and one day at the Union I stumbled upon the Women's Lounge. When I walked inside I was absolutely stunned at what I had found. I sat down on a couch, fell asleep and slept peacefully; I had found a safe haven. Not soon after...I was raped on campus. I made the long trip from east to north neighborhood just to feel safe. I went to the women's lounge every single day until I medically withdrew from school. It was the place I felt most comfortable, when I wasn't even comfortable in my own dorm.”

A petition has collected over 5,000 signatures, all calling to reinstate the Women’s Lounge at MSU. It reads:

“We are petitioning to take back our study lounge, reinstate the Women’s Resource Center, and the support of our Women’s Counsel. Our society has a history of gender inequality and MSU’s community is sadly no exception. Our University has been tarnished by ongoing investigation of mishandling sexual assault cases, of mostly women. The lounge was a space where sexual assault victims could go and feel safe, a space away from their attacker. Now our lounge, the only room on campus where women could relax and just be around other women, is being taken away.”

Students in support of reinstating the lounge have been engaged in critical conversations about the way this space should be used in order to create in inclusive atmosphere. A protest took place in the MSU Student Union on September 2nd.

“I've heard from many sources that the atmosphere in the lounge was only truly accepting of white women and cisgender women,” Remarks Maksimosky. “That needs to change. We are striving for intersectionality in this protest.” She adds that the protest has received immense support. “Students have shared their stories, shown support via Facebook, and made an effort to combat the sexism we inevitability get on the page. I'm blown away. This is more than I could have asked for.”

The University has not publicly recognized the student response to this decision, or to decisions concerning the Women’s Resource Center and the Clinic. “We have been talking to student leaders, and we encourage any students to make their voice heard on any issue, especially one as important as gender equity.” says Cody. “That said, the plans are moving forward.”

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