Front Lines on the Back Burner

UNLV’s women’s studies program may be the odd man out—and that’s a defeat for the whole city

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On the Facebook page “Cancel Women’s Studies at UNLV,” students are debating the political agendas of their professors. At “Save UNLV Women’s Studies!” Facebookers are discussing the state budget cuts that brought the issue to the forefront to begin with—and linking one another to lawmakers and administrators to voice their support for the program.

Neither site is rife with discourse about the significance of gender studies in the sexpot capital of America. In fact, there are only 32 undergraduates in UNLV’s program, making it the smallest of the 12 departments in the College of Liberal Arts. In the last 30 years, women’s and gender studies have become a staple in higher education—there are more than 900 programs worldwide and 400 in the U.S. And here in Las Vegas, where so little is dependent on gender roles—e.g., the entire economy—the tiny department is preparing to walk the plank.

The proposed destruction of the department comes against the backdrop of events that ought to make us think twice about the importance of understanding gender roles:

A pregnant woman died in UMC’s emergency room when her pleas for help were ignored. Two Las Vegas prostitutes were beaten to death with a golf club and buried in the desert for under-earning. The federal government nearly came to a halt over funding Planned Parenthood. My out-of-town visitors couldn’t see the Bellagio fountains because of a ginormous mobile billboard of an escort’s ass. And Angel Porrino, Las Vegas’ home-grown reality TV star, told the Las Vegas Sun that as  “a single mom trying to take over the world” she will advance her career by dancing topless inside a big balloon. (“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” she told Robin Leach.)

All of this seems to suggest (elephant/room) that gender roles warrant analysis everywhere, but slightly more so in Las Vegas than somewhere like Tucson, Ariz., where the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Arizona offers a joint master’s and juris doctor program, for example.

“Las Vegas—of all places—needs a heartbeat of feminism,” says UNLV Women’s Studies assistant professor Lynn Comella, who has led the fight for the program, sending out e-mails and letters and calls for support. “You can’t turn around in Vegas without seeing something that needs to be looked at through [the perspective of] gender studies.”

Comella moved here in 2007 from Indiana University, where the department has more than a 100 undergraduates. Her work focuses on, among other things, the sex and porn industries, the first of which is illegal in but integral to Las Vegas (see mobile billboard, above), the second of which we honor with parties at the annual Adult Video News convention here. To assert that none of this warrants any scholarly thought is, well, historically habitual. And pitiful.

A final decision won’t be made until a few more rounds of budget talks, but the latest plan folds Women’s Studies into Interdisciplinary Studies, narrowing the offerings and supporting a smaller staff while saving some $300,000 against a liberal arts budget shortfall initially estimated at $3.7 million. The director of Women’s Studies, Lois Helmbold, decided it was time to retire and will finish her career with a fellowship in Turkey next year, according to the Chris Hudgins, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

One could force a silver-lining story out of the brief recognition the field gets while it’s in the crosshairs—just as the dean casts the inclusion of a dismantled Women’s Studies program in Interdisciplinary Studies as a good outcome under the budget circumstances. But even if the department disappears, the subject itself won’t. The real issue—denial of the validity of gender issues—remains entrenched in Vegas, even as the city’s leaders assert the need to evolve socially and intellectually in order to survive economically.