Cornaro Professorship 2013 – Dr. Claire Sahlin

Dr. Neely

Faculty gather on a windy April day for TWU Honors Convocation. Provost Robert Neely, shown here, presented many of the academic awards.

 TWU HONORS CONVOCATION      

The excellence of a TWU education was on full display at the 2013 Honors Convocation.  Outstanding student, faculty, staff and alumni accomplishments were recognized.  One of the University’s most treasured traditions, the event begins with the playing of the processional on the Margo Jones performance hall pipe organ.   Faculty are in full regalia as they parade down the aisle to their seats where they will applaud their peers for their awards and accomplishments. 

Dr. Sahlin

Cornaro professor, Dr. Claire Sahlin, receives her award from Chancellor Ann Stuart

One of the highlights of the occasion is the presentation by the Cornaro Professor, the highest recognition given to a TWU faculty member.  This year’s honoree was Dr. Claire Sahlin, Department Chair, Women’s Studies.  Dr. Sahlin’s remarks resonated with the TWU Community, particularly the alumni in the audience.  See Dr. Sahlin’s message below:

Dr. Sahlin2

Members of the stage party applaud Dr. Sahlin’s remarks

 “During my very first semester at TWU, as I was getting adjusted to my new job and feverishly preparing each day to teach several new courses, I was waiting one afternoon for the elevator near my office on the 11th floor of the CFO building.  Maybe a lot of you have had experiences like mine, as you’ve waited for one of the many elevators at TWU.  As the doors to the elevator opened, and I saw who exactly was already standing inside, my heart raced and my stomach sank a little.  Inside the elevator was Chancellor Stuart, together with the individuals who were the Provost and my college Dean at the time.  After resisting my impulse to make a run for the stairwell, I walked into the elevator feeling self-conscious and slightly flushed with embarrassment. 

As we rode down together, they began asking about my experiences at TWU thus far.  One of them posed a crucial question that has stayed with me ever since:  “What do you think about being here at TWU, our university that is primarily for women?” 

This question—posed so early in my TWU career—has always impressed me as a significant measure of what has been important to faculty, staff, and administrators at this unique and admirable institution.  My answer at the time was about the curriculum.  I replied by saying that I could teach my courses in philosophy, ethics, and world religions with an emphasis on topics related to women.  I said that at TWU, unlike other places where I had taught, I didn’t feel the need to defend teaching about the ideas, roles, or status of women in all of our diversity.

Over the years since then, I’ve become somewhat more relaxed about getting into the campus elevators.  I’ve also been able to reflect even further on TWU’s stature as the nation’s largest university primarily for women, reflections first prompted by that chance encounter on the elevator.  I take pride in our history of empowering women, and I am also delighted to be a member of a community whose core values include promoting learning among students from diverse racial, ethnic, social, and cultural backgrounds.

Many new and exciting things are happening at this university.  For faculty and administrators, this has been a year of reflecting on TWU’s past accomplishments and a year of planning for our future.  Collectively, we’ve reported to SACS, developed a Quality Enhancement Plan, participated in program prioritization, implemented an academic strategic plan, and begun a systematic process of visioning and integrated planning.  As we continue with these activities, it is fitting that we are also asked to thoughtfully consider our university’s distinctive commitment to educating a diverse student body, consisting primarily of women. 

A few years ago, I had the great joy of doing research and writing about the history of TWU for a collection of essays focusing on women’s colleges and universities.*  Through my work in the Woman’s Collection of the Blagg-Huey Library, I learned so many things that increased my respect and admiration for our university.  Our school, as you know, was established in 1901 to be a place where women could receive an education to help ensure their economic security.  Helen Stoddard, one of the our founders, envisioned a school that instilled self-reliance among young Texas women of all social classes, so that they would not be pressured to get married out of economic need.

Opponents of establishing this institution felt that educating women was unnecessary since “instinct,” they said, “is all a woman needs” to successfully raise a family.  Some feared that educating women would make them too independent.  One opposing legislator even claimed—perhaps with tongue in cheek—that if Texas women learned how to support themselves, they “would cease getting married” altogether.  He predicted that if our university were established there wouldn’t be a baby born in Texas within fifty years!

From the beginning, our programs of study have followed the motto suggested by Stoddard and adopted recently as the theme of our new Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP):  “We learn to do by doing.”  TWU’s earliest curriculum was aimed at increasing women’s occupational and life prospects by training them for work in industry and commerce.  The University’s founders also required students to take courses in literature, history, math, science, and the fine arts to develop students into well-rounded human beings.  This emphasis on practical training together with a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences is a hallmark of TWU, even today.

Our university has also embodied paradoxes throughout its history.  In the words of former women’s studies professor Vivian May, “TWU . . . symbolizes a place of both convention and subversiveness, propriety and risk taking, domestic femininity and public leadership.”** The history of this institution, which sometimes has sought to cultivate traditional feminine charm and poise, has been populated with redbud princesses and Texas A&M football sweethearts.  At the same time, our university has educated outstanding artists, athletes, nurses, teachers, therapists, social workers, and pioneering leaders in traditionally male-dominated fields like math and science.

To be sure, TWU is not a university that is only for women.  For the past forty years, many men have chosen to pursue degrees here, often because of our specialized programs and supportive atmosphere.  Yet when the Board of Regents decided to welcome men into all parts of the university in 1994, it pledged to strengthen TWU’s historic focus on the needs and empowerment of women.

Today, TWU also explicitly seeks to provide educational opportunities for students from varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.  With nearly 50% of our student body from traditionally underrepresented minority groups, TWU recently was ranked in the top 10 nationally among universities with the most diverse student populations.

Over the years, as more opportunities have become available to women and people of color, one might question the continued value and purpose of our distinctive educational focus.  I am very pleased that the university remains dedicated to the historic mission and seeks new and innovative ways to achieve excellence while guided by our core values.

We live in a nation in which women still do not participate fully in our economic and political life; a society in which women still do not always have adequate access to health care or receive equal pay for the work that we do; a society in which violence is still perpetrated against women by intimate partners; and a society and a society in which gendered inequities are intertwined with and compounded by racial and ethnic discrimination.  As long as social inequalities exist both in our nation and across the globe, we need Texas Woman’s University to continue to be an educational institution that inspires women and men to be agents of change and makers of peace.

As Hillary Clinton pointed out in April 2013 at the Women in the World Summit, advocating for women’s rights is not merely a “nice” thing to do and it is not a “luxury”; it is a “core imperative for every human being in every society.” As an institution, we have understood the wisdom in Secretary Clinton’s words and have actively dedicated ourselves to promoting human dignity and social justice both inside and outside of the classroom.  It is wonderful that so many students, faculty, and administrators in this learning community are working to promote the empowerment of women in the twenty-first century.

As we go forth this morning, I look forward to our continuing conversations—both inside and outside of the campus elevators—about our vision for TWU and how we can enact and even extend its mission today.  It has been an honor to serve with so many of you who have seen the great potential of a university primarily for women and who have done so much to ensure that the university lives up to its innovative and distinctive mission.”

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About 4twualumni

Director of Alumni Relations, Texas Woman's University, Denton, Dallas and Houston Texas
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