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Sexing the curriculum

It takes private cash to fund queer programs

SEATS OF KNOWLEDGE. Mariana Valverde, Mark S Bonham, David Rayside and Maureen FitzGerald. Credit: (JOSHUA MELES)

The Sexual Diversity Studies (SDS) program at the University Of Toronto is the largest of its kind in Canada, one of the largest in North America and, for a program in a relatively new field of inquiry (the first queer studies programs didn’t start until the early 1990s), it has an enviable level of academic prestige.

“For a program that began only in 1998,” says SDS centre director David Rayside, “I would be hard-pressed to find another interdisciplinary program at our stage of growth that is known as well by people up the administrative leadership hierarchy of this university. For specific projects I’ve almost always gotten support for things that we’ve wanted.”

Why, then, is the department so wildly underfunded?

For the first seven years of its existence, the program received no direct funding from the university that housed it; classroom space, teaching time, some administrative help and the occasional bit of one-off project funding, but no ongoing line-budget funding.

Initially, says Maureen FitzGerald, director of the undergraduate program from 2000 to 2006, “We passed the hat.” The university and the college, University College, where the program is based matched those donations, and for the first three years of its existence the program managed on $15,000 annually.

Gay philanthropist Mark Bonham stepped up to the plate in 2001 with a $200,000 donation-cum-endowment that essentially paid for two half-courses a year.

It wasn’t until 2005, however, that the university itself started to provide direct, ongoing financial support. At present it covers significantly more than half the program’s annual budget of about $200,000. The funds cover teaching stipends for core courses and part of the cost of running the office.

Why the time lag? It’s not like the program hasn’t proved its credibility.

Founded in 1998, with no office, no dedicated staff people and no institutional funding, SDS launched with a smattering of courses, mostly drawn from other disciplines, and a grand total of 20 students enrolled in its minor program.

Nine years later, it offers a major — started in 2004 and still the only one of its kind in Canada — and has about 150 people enrolled in both the major and minor programs. Its students can choose from about 10 core courses and 70-odd related courses offered through more traditional departments.

Next year, in the fall of 2008, it will offer graduate programs (both MA and PhD) in collaboration with other more established departments like English and political science.

But to date the biggest show of financial support has come from the private sector. Two years ago Bonham pledged an additional $1 million (and a bit) to what has now been named the Mark S Bonham Centre For Sexual Diversity Studies.

For its part, the university has been more supportive than the accounting books might suggest, says Rayside, who is also a professor of political science.

Right from the beginning, he says, his own department allowed him to rejig his responsibilities so he could teach a half-course in sexual diversity politics that became one of the core courses in the SDS program (though it still falls under the aegis of political science).

Deans and other officials have dipped into their discretionary budgets to provide funds for one-off projects like last winter’s conference on sexuality, religion and politics. (There’s always money for one-off projects, says Rayside, and many of them pay off big time. “Conferences give you profile.”)

More recently the university has adopted a policy of so-called collateral hires, whereby people hired in one department are also expected to teach in the SDS program.

Michael Cobb in English and Adam Green in sociology both work this territory. “All of them teach courses in sexuality that we can list as part of the core of what we do,” says Rayside.

None of these understandings are formal, however — more of a “gentleman’s agreement,” says FitzGerald — which means staffing isn’t secure. But Rayside says formal cross-appointments are the next stage. “We go through five-year planning cycles. In the next planning cycle I fully expect that we’ll get a couple of explicitly shared appointments.”

Even if the university kicks in more funds, the centre will continue to go after private funds says Rayside. It gives it a flexibility to do things most centres at SDS’s stage of growth aren’t normally able to do, like sponsor major conferences and invite high-profile guests.

Still, more money from the university wouldn’t go amiss. FitzGerald isn’t optimistic about an increase, not at a time of continued academic cutbacks.

Rayside, however, says SDS is in an excellent position to improve its financial status.

By the time the next planning cycle kicks off, the department will have established its graduate program, maintained healthy student enrollments and raised some money on the side, all of which makes it look good. Bonham’s gift, for instance, gave SDSa healthy publicity boost within the university. It showed that other people took it seriously.

Rayside and several other people originally founded SDS with the thought that the curriculum needed a “kick in the butt.” Many of them had been involved in campus activism and the one thing that had changed the least was the curriculum. The demand was there, students wanted something more — but the content wasn’t.

Nine years later, they appear to have given the field the nudge it needed. “Just by existing and growing we’ve established this as a legitimate field,” says Rayside.

Already there are 30 or 40 faculty members with a strong interest in sexuality, says Rayside, and every few months he hears of a new hire who’s keen to work with SDS.

At the moment, Rayside and a colleague are doing the rounds of various departments, faculties and centres, trying to find out who is interested in supporting SDS’s collaborative grad program.

“Every single conversation we have had,” says Rayside, “has been enthusiastic; every single one. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago and wouldn’t have been conceivable 10 years ago. That’s the kind of visibility and legitimacy you can’t buy.”