Wednesday, March 29, 2000
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Volume 65, Issue 121

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Critics fear women's groups created by Smith redundant

By Natalie Yeats
Daily Cougar Staff

The creation of the University's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women has generated mixed feelings among its members and members of the existing Committee on the Status of Women.

The commission was created last year by UH President Arthur K. Smith to address women's issues and concerns like salary inequity, child care and discrimination. Its membership consists of male and female faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students. The commission is temporary and is set to be dissolved Aug. 31, 2001.

The Committee on the Status of Women, which has existed for several years, is filled by the Faculty Senate and serves as a women's advisory group to the president.

The question in some people's minds is: Why did Smith create a commission with what appears to be essentially the same charge as the standing committee?

"The commission ... is not necessarily intended to supplant the work of the current Standing Committee on the Status of Women; but is expected to function as an expanded task force, to look more intensively at women's issues and concerns," Smith wrote of the commission.

Saleha Khumawala, associate professor in the College of Business Administration, is both chairwoman of the standing committee and a member of the commission. She said she works as a liaison between the committee and the commission, to make sure their efforts are not duplicated.

Despite that effort, Khumawala said some committee members were angered when Smith created the commission.

"Some members of the committee felt (the establishment of the commission) was a slap on our faces," Khumawala said.

Since it was established, the committee has not accomplished much more than giving out scholarships, Khumawala said. She attributed that to poor participation among committee members and difficulty in trying to accommodate each member's busy schedule.

The committee attempted to conduct a series of focus groups in spring 1998 to collect perceptions about concerns and issues affecting women at UH. Only a few of the groups were actually conducted, and no final report was written.

Khumawala said the committee has made several recommendations to Smith, including funding a Women's Resource Center, but members never followed up on them.

The commission has met twice since its inception and has already had two members resign. Both women said they felt two years was too long to do research on problems that need to be addressed immediately.

Angi Patton, associate art professor, resigned from the commission because she said it is "misdirected in its purpose."

"The question is not if gender inequity exists; this is obvious," Patton said. "The question should be what is our strategy for correcting this situation."

Associate English professor Maria Gonzalez also resigned from the commission, saying that the two-year timeline was excessive and she believed too many administrators sat on the commission.

Gonzalez was also concerned with the fact that June Smith, the president's wife, is a member.

Commission Chairwoman Ileana Treviño defended both points, saying the two-year timetable doesn't mean members will wait that long to take action, if it is necessary.

"Smith has given us until August 2001, but we don't have to wait until then to make recommendations," Treviño said.

She also said Mrs. Smith's presence on the commission had caused concern among some members, and at the group's first meeting, the first lady offered to step down from her position. The commission decided she should remain a member.

For Stella Thorp, the commission's only disabled member, the main concern will be inclusiveness. Thorp said she wants to ensure that all concerns are discussed openly and none are silenced.

"The issues of a disabled woman are no more marginal than (those of) a minority," Thorp said.

She added that she is concerned about ensuring faculty and staff members are equally represented on the commission.

"Staff and faculty face somewhat different issues on this campus," Thorp said. "I want to make sure the staff is looked at too."

Despite any concerns from present or past members, Treviño said she believes Smith's creating the commission reflected a genuine concern regarding women's issues.

"I believe he is sincere," she said. "I don't think he has a hidden agenda."

But Patton disagreed.

"The formation of the commission had one purpose -- to appease those who have noticed the gender inequity and are holding Smith accountable," Patton said.

The president has come under fire for allegedly turning a deaf ear to women's issues on campus as well as for building a mostly male administration. University officials maintain that they offer equal opportunity to women in all positions.

At the commission's next meeting, members will vote to hire one of three independent research firms to investigate women's issues on the campus. The firm's findings will be reviewed and reported to President Smith.

In the meantime, members of the women's committee said they would continue championing women's issues, particularly the need for a women's center.

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