Women's Week at UNC-Chapel Hill is set to kick off smoothly next week, without the disagreements that have dogged the celebration since 2003. There are no competing events being planned by pro-choice students and no complaints from anti-abortion groups about being shut out of programming. In fact, abortion is nowhere on the agenda for the eighth annual Women's Week, which is sponsored by the Carolina Women's Center. This year's topics for roundtables include gender identity, women in war, domestic violence, women's leadership, prostitution and pornography, and media images of women (for details, visit www.unc.edu/womenscenter ).
While outwardly, controversy seems to have died down, inwardly, the eight-year-old women's center is still struggling with sharp questions over its handling of the abortion issue--questions that are increasingly being raised at other campus women's centers nationwide.
The argument erupted last year when Carolina Women's Center Director Diane Kjervik refused to adopt a "statement of values" approved by the center's advisory board that explicitly supported reproductive and gay rights. In response, leading feminist and gay student groups dropped out of last year's Women's Week and staged an alternative series.
Kjervik further angered pro-choice students and faculty by agreeing to let Carolina Students for Life (CSFL), an anti-abortion student group, host Women's Week speakers and be included as a link on the center's Web site. Those decisions came after CSFL leaders complained to UNC administrators that they'd been excluded from Women's Week and center programming. (A debate on abortion last fall organized in response to those complaints set off yet another flap when CSFL's anti-abortion speaker refused to shelve a graphic video presentation and the two sides ended up in separate rooms.)
This year, critics say, the women's center appears to be avoiding abortion altogether so as not to spark further controversy.
"People are scared of the word abortion," says senior Emily Johnson, a member of Choice USA, one of three groups that pulled out of Women's Week 2004 and are still not back at the table. "The center is afraid they're going to lose donors if they bring this up."
Kjervik denies the women's center is avoiding anything. She stresses that as an organization serving a public university, the center must stay neutral on abortion. "We want to provide a safe environment for discussion among people who do not always agree," she says. "And that's a challenge."
It's been especially challenging the past few years as conservative students have launched well-organized campaigns for ideological "balance" in UNC classrooms and campus organizations.
Stephanie Evans, president of CSFL, says her group had threatened legal action against the women's center after trying for two years straight to get speakers critical of abortion on the Women's Week roster.
"We were keeping all of our options on the table and they knew that," Evans says. "All of this is water under the bridge now and we're very happy."
Now, it's feminist and pro-choice groups who feel rebuffed. They say Kjervik has avoided meeting with them to explain why she wouldn't adopt the statement of values last year--a claim the director denies. And while they agree the center has a responsibility to be welcoming to all, critics say it doesn't have to represent all viewpoints.
"Would we ask the Black Student Movement to endorse and have a relationship with a racist organization or an organization that is not willing to endorse an anti-racist mission?" graduate students Matt Ezzell and Natalia Deeb-Sossa--members of Feminist Students United--asked in a letter to the women center's advisory board. (The two were also members of the advisory board. They say they were dropped from the board shortly after the vote on the values statement, while Kjervik says they resigned.)
The issue has come up in Kjervik's regularly scheduled administrative review (she is the center's first full-time director), where some have said the failure to adopt the values statement raises questions about her leadership.
Can a campus women's center thrive if key feminist and pro-choice groups aren't behind it?
"We do work with many feminists," Kjervik replies. "But we can't please all women. We have hundreds of student groups here that work on their own issues and concerns. I see a need for parts of the campus that don't take positions" on political issues like abortion.
Stephanie Chang, coordinator of Carolina's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender office, agrees with that approach. "Because they are a center under the provost's office, their mission is to serve all students," she says. "I think the problems have come from just the idea that the women's center isn't choosing a side."
Others argue that advocating for women shouldn't be pegged as partisan--especially at a center founded to empower women.
"Questions of choice should be front and center; women's control over their own bodies should be front and center," says Altha Cravey, an associate professor of geography and a member of the women center's advisory board. "The center should not alienate women, but the center should stand for something, and those two things are very different."
Carolina isn't the only campus where women's centers are being challenged on abortion. National leaders say a combination of more conservative student bodies and more activist anti-abortion groups has meant it's harder to take a stand on the issue. "This does seem to be coming up more, and it's not an easy question," says Brenda Bethman, who chairs the Women's Centers Committee of the National Women's Studies Association. "How do you actually serve all of your students?"
Even within the UNC system, women's centers have taken different tacks. The center at Western Carolina University, for example, provides links to both Planned Parenthood and Birthright, a Christian network of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, on its Web site. But leaders of the women's center at UNC-Wilmington have so far declined to do the same because, as interim Director Kathleen Berkeley says, the center already links to Planned Parenthood, which "provides counsel about adoption as well as abortion services. So I think we are offering a full range here. We provide choice and to me, that is the essence of feminism."
Berkeley adds that she'd like to see a policy for the UNC system that clarifies the role of women's centers and their ability to take positions on hot-button issues.
Administrators at Chapel Hill say that policy already exists--and it, not complaints from conservative students, is why the campus women's center is staying neutral on abortion.
"This is really very simple and straightforward," says Steve Allred, associate provost of academic affairs, with just a trace of annoyance. "The university doesn't take an official position on abortion, period. That has nothing to do with what the controversy du jour is. And it doesn't mean the university doesn't advocate for academic freedom. But if the university were to say we are pro-choice, how would that stand with our students and faculty who are not?"
Still, even some who support that position worry that the way the abortion issue has played out on campus will end up shutting down useful debate.
"I don't think you can represent all the views," says Jacqueline Resnick, the university's director of research and development and a member of the women's center's advisory board. "You can provide a safe environment for views to be voiced in a manner that encourages a sense of dignity and openness. I think the administration has been very clear that they support the women's center and that has to continue. What I don't want to see is them back off from having something happen because it's controversial."
Meanwhile, conservative students have moved on. Evans says her group decided not to plan anything for Women's Week this year, preferring to focus attention on other campus forums.
Kjervik puts a positive face on recent events, saying the controversies have helped "raise the profile" of the women's center.
Supporters hope that arguments over abortion won't distract from the organization's broader mission at the university.
"We can't have women at odds with each other," says Mary Turner Lane, who helped create Women's Studies at UNC and is a major benefactor of the Carolina Women's Center. "We have too little power as it is."