Some Wyoming lawmakers tried and failed Friday to defund the University of Wyoming’s gender studies program.
The effort came as a proposed amendment to the state House of Representatives supplemental budget bill.
Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, said the program runs against the intentions of the university founders when it was formed.
“The University of Wyoming needs to return to serious academic inquiry,” said Ward.
House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, left the speaker’s chair to dispute Ward.
Sommers said Ward’s proposition reflects a misreading of the 1862 Morril Act, which defines land-grant universities.
Under the act, “the study of liberal arts was also appropriate,” said Sommers. “I think it’s appropriate for the university to have the studies they deem necessary, that they deem important.”
Sommers was passionate throughout the debate.
Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, also opposed the amendment to defund the program, saying doing so would chase off prospective students and violate a university’s purpose of offering a variety of ideas.
Proponents of the amendment, such as Republican Reps. Tony Locke (Casper) and Tamara Trujillo (Cheyenne), said defunding the program merely reflects how uncomfortable the majority of Wyomingites are with paying for it with taxpayer dollars.
“We have a university that can further educate (students) to a higher level, as essential employees,” said Trujillo. “I don’t believe this curriculum falls under that status.”
The undergraduate program includes courses titled:
• Intro (to) Gender & Women’s Studies
• Introduction to LGBTQ/NS Studies
• Gender, Race, Sex & Social Systems
• Feminist Theories
• Queer Theory
The undergraduate program then bifurcates into the Gender and Women’s Studies graduate minor and the Queer Studies graduate minor. The latter program offers many courses including:
• Intimate Relationships
• Pop Music & Sexualities
• Minority Sexual/Gender Identity Issues in Education
Some detractors of the amendment said they disagree with the program, but don’t think the state should exert its political interests over a university’s curriculum to the extent of defunding it.
Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, was adamant in the sentiment.
He read a portion of the Wyoming Constitution stating that the state has delegated its power over the university to the school’s trustees.
“Do I agree with this particular line of study at the university? No I don’t. But that sort of is irrelevant,” said Crago, adding that the state should not be “making political choices about kids’ education.”
Crago later cited a portion of the state Constitution forbidding the Legislature from prescribing textbooks in public schools.
However, Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, in an earlier committee meeting this legislative session told a lobbyist that provision was designed to keep textbook publishers from bribing legislators – not to prohibit legislators from influencing curricula.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said the bill marginalizes women, since the program’s actual name is Gender and Women’s Studies, which other lawmakers would know “if any of you have taken a class over there.”
“In the Equality State, really?” asked Zwonitzer, adding that he knows young women who want to take those courses specifically to help other women living in oppressive countries.
Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, countered with his own anecdote, saying he knows a strong, independent young woman who said the program does not advance feminine strength and independence.
“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Haroldson. “But you have to understand what’s in the bathwater as well.”
Not Your Money
Republican Majority Whip Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, identified an issue with the amendment that became problematic for others: It didn’t only apply to state funds. It would also have forbidden the university from taking federal or other kinds of funding for the program as well.
Western said that “very clear distinction” was the reason he couldn’t support the amendment.
‘Such An Audacious Approach’
Multiple legislators who supported the amendment pointed to the Wyoming Constitution’s Article 7, Section 21, which states that the Legislature should advance the state’s morality.
Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, characterized the term morality as subjective through the ages.
“At one point in time those with a different color to our skin were deemed immoral as well,” said Brown, becoming heated. “I’ve never seen such an audacious approach.”
Brown said he didn’t major in these courses, doesn’t agree with them and believes people who have majored in gender studies are now having a hard time getting a job.
“But that’s their choice. They’re paying tuition,” he added.
Conversely, Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, said the amendment denies nobody’s ability to learn – it just prevents public money from being used on topics that are averse to many Wyomingites.
“Perhaps there are times when things go too far one way,” said Jennings. “Then it becomes our obligation to say, ‘this has gone far enough.’”
When the vote was called, the ayes resounded nearly as loudly as the nays shutting down the amendment, but there was no order for a standing vote.