So, Rich Little has been hosting a series of guest bloggers sharing their thoughts on our alma mater's Presidential transition. So I thought I'd share the perspective of an out of work alumna on my own blog. (These thoughts will be a lot less polished than the high-profile public statements on Rich's blog.)
Like the bloggers that shared their thoughts so far, I have fond memories of Harding. Those memories revolve around a roommate who is the longest-standing female friend of my life and her husband and the girls I played soccer with and the year I roomed with my little sister and HUF and the classmates I learned with and the professors I learned from.
I also have some terrible memories. Harding is the place where I entered into a mode of such deep self-deception that I willingly continued what I now understand was an emotionally abusive relationship, and subsequently a depression that didn't lift until years after leaving there.
It seems appropriate in the midst of all the nostalgia and fond reminiscing, meant as a sort of bona fides for "despite the fact that I'm going to be slightly critical but first let me prove to you how much I love Harding," to point out that "the Harding experience" is not wholly positive for everyone. And hell, I was a rule-following straight white CofC girl from Tennessee--it's not like I didn't fit the Harding mold. I imagine "the Harding experience" might have been significantly more nightmarish if I were gay, or a Baptist who loved her instrumental music.
Others have expressed eloquently their concerns about transparency and academic rigor and faithfulness and the inadequacy of maintaining the status quo as a strategy for leadership in an institution. These are excellent concerns, but they aren't my primary concerns. It surprised me to begin drafting this post and realize that what I most wanted to say didn't, after all, revolve around the academic implications of the presidential transition. It's important to me, as a professional academic myself; don't get me wrong. I think this decision reflects a larger trend of decline of terminal degrees in the faculty, particularly Bible department faculty. This makes me sad, because I personally received an education from Harding that prepared me well for subsequent degree programs. I would like to trust that this was still a priority, but this decision doesn't bode well.
But even that's not why I won't send my daughters there. I won't send my daughters there because I don't want them to experience a culture where the second-class status of women is so unquestioned that it not only shapes chapel, Bible classes, church, devotionals and specifically God-related stuff, but pretty much the whole "Harding experience."
Is that too large a claim? I don't think so. I was an RA in Cathcart, Searcy Hall and New Marrieds; every night for three years I made curfew rounds, every week I did a housekeeping check. I policed dress code violations. And as everyone at Harding knows, these things only apply to girls. Even then, I knew this was something to grumble about as more than just an annoyance. An institution that literally keeps its girls locked up in a tower, and then, because we're safe under lock and key, lets the boys be boys? Sure, that's not sexist or anything.
Then there's that whole "MRS" degree thing. My dad still shakes his head in disbelief when he tells how, in the new Harding parent thing he went to, President Burks guaranteed everyone that their child would find their future spouse at Harding. (He always ends that anecdote with threatening to get his money back, though I'll note that as a technicality, I did meet Brent at Harding even if he never bothered to ask me out while there.) I took a class where married students got an extra "skip" and where we were told we'd get extra credit for going on a first date during the semester (that turned out to be false advertising--I tried it.) Only married students can live off-campus. Oh, and there's that better-not-to-burn-with-lust thing plus the front lawn--talk about entrapment... Even leaving aside the questionable ethics of promoting a culture that rushes people into marriage (a huge issue to just politely bracket!), the marriage factory culture creates an assumption that at least some female students are not there as students but as sex objects--I mean, future brides.
And then there's the serious stuff. The way that female students get penalized differently than male students for having sex. The way that women aren't always offered the same academic scholarship opportunities that men are. The way that everyone knew it was laughable to even pretend that a female candidate for the position of President had a chance in hell of actually getting it.
The way that, in a relationship that I was sure was going to get me my own Mrs. degree, I took emotional abuse as my due penalty for disclosing past sins of my previous dating life. Because, after all, I owed this guy total honesty and had grievously betrayed him before I even met him and so it was all my fault. The way that for years after I struggled to regain any confidence that anyone could ever love me, such a damaged wreck.
The great irony for me is that Harding is where I simultaneously learned my second-place place and began my process of unlearning it. Harding is the place where I took the infamous class called "Christian Home"--and even then knew enough to pitch the textbook across the dorm room more than once before giving up reading it. Harding is the place where I met my spouse, an ardent feminist and liberated man indeed. Harding is the place I learned biblical Greek--but "for fun," because what would be the point of taking it seriously? Harding is the place where I learned to craft my voice; Harding is the place that taught me I'd have to go to China to use it. Harding is the place where I preached my first sermon. And Harding is the place where I was told not to go to seminary because I'd be "getting dressed up with no place to go."
The critiques of this presidential decision that worry about the inadequacy of preservation of the status quo as an institutional leadership strategy aren't wrong. But many fall short of addressing the real question, which is, what is wrong with the status quo? Why shouldn't it, after all, be maintained?
There's much more to say in answer to that. But this is my answer. This is one thing that is wrong with the status quo. And the one thing on which everyone seems to agree, supporters and critics alike, is that this is what the presidential decision here was all about.
So, I hope that's wrong. I hope that some of these deeply embedded practices in Harding's campus life, policies, and institutional structure are named, recognized as a problem, and constructively addressed. Because you shouldn't have to unlearn as much you learned at college. Because your faith shouldn't be an instrument of oppression, externally or internally. Because God made us with brains and guts and voices as well as wombs and vaginas, and we're supposed to use all of it as we see fit to the greater glory of God. Because Harding ought to be helping its women do exactly that, not locking them in a tower.