March 17, 2014
John H. Coatsworth, Provost
Professor of International and Public Affairs and of History
205 Low Library
Mail Code 4313
New York, NY 10027
Dear Provost Coatsworth,
The undersigned represent an international group of human rights, public health, and sexual rights advocates and practitioners working for social justice. We are writing to express our extreme shock and dismay that Columbia University has terminated the position of Dr. Carole Vance. Signatories to this letter — activists, policy makers, and members of non-governmental organizations — have benefited significantly from Dr. Vance’s scholarship, and have often used her insights and analyses in our own work. We are concerned that Dr. Vance’s termination would harm the sexual health and rights work to which her contributions have been so important. Terminating Dr. Vance reflects badly upon Columbia University, and is especially hard to reconcile with Columbia’s dedication to being a “global university” engaged with the pressing problems of the world. We respectfully request that the decision be withdrawn, and Dr. Vance be allowed to continue her critical work within the auspices of your university.
Although she is an academic based in the United States, Dr. Vance has offered globally relevant analyses and insights: one of her great gifts is to write and teach in such a clear and open way that all of us could adapt her work as suitable and productive in our respective contexts. This global applicability, coupled with her keen insights in a field often marked as dangerous and highly contested, are two key elements motivating our support for Dr. Vance.
Gender and sexual rights activists are facing harsh legal developments around the world, such as the passage of restrictive sexual expression and anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria, as well as a major anti-feminist and anti-gay backlash in Russia and campaigns for ‘traditional values’ in the U.S. and globally. In this context, it is more important than ever to train advocates and activists in sexuality and rights-related scholarship in ways that are both complex and accessible. Dr. Vance’s scholarship, teaching methods, and mentoring are models for addressing these urgent challenges.
Dr. Vance has served as an informal adviser for many of us, opening up engagement with theories and histories of sexuality, gender, health, and reproductive rights in ways that are useful for law reform, program design, policy advocacy and community organizing. She has also served as an expert consultant and advisor to national and international organizations focusing on these issues. From 2009-2012, she was an expert advisor to a World Health Organization project on sexual health and human rights that included groundbreaking cross-regional work, and contributed more broadly to WHO’s work on sexual health.
Dr. Vance has made lasting contributions in these fields through her writing and through her teaching both at Columbia and throughout the world. For ten years, Dr. Vance taught international advocates and scholars in the Summer Institute on Sexuality and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, which she also co-directed for eight years. For more than a decade, she has taught in the Sexuality and Rights Institute held in India (for South Asian participants) and in Turkey (for participants from Africa, Latin America, Europe and Southeast and East Asia), also helping to design the curriculum for both Institutes. Dr. Vance’s collaboration with CREA, the New Delhi-based NGO, which organizes the institute, is an example of the best of academic and NGO partnerships. Through this work, Dr. Vance has reached many key advocates, programmers, and policy makers in over 75 countries; their courageous and creative work, in turn, is having a widespread impact in sexuality, health, and human rights work in their own regions.
Dr. Vance’s remarkable capacity to translate complex analytical scholarship, making it available to and productive for advocates outside of a university setting, goes beyond her work in these seminars. She also has an unremitting willingness to mentor, to advise, to be ‘on call’ for advocates when they face extraordinary challenges. This principled commitment to move the resources of the academy to the places where change often begins is among Dr. Vance’s notable characteristics: it is why she is invited to speak and teach in China, Mexico, India, Brazil, Vietnam, and many other countries, as well as in the U.S. Many academics come to lecture: only a few stick around long enough to understand the nature of the problems, and even fewer commit to long term and broad-based support for advocates. For these and many other reasons, we are dismayed to imagine Columbia undercutting its contribution to this work.
We understand that Dr. Vance’s dismissal may have something to do with the new financial model for the Mailman School of Public Health, which requires faculty members to raise a significant portion of their salaries (as much as 80%) through grants to keep their jobs. We also understand that U.S. government grants (for example, from the U.S. National Institutes of Health) primarily support research, which means that under Columbia’s new model, faculty members could devote only a limited amount of time to teaching and mentoring.
We are gravely concerned that Columbia’s new financial model for its Mailman School of Public Health makes it virtually impossible for faculty to collaborate with groups outside the U.S. on social justice and advocacy projects that they have originated. By design, it would not only shut out leading scholars, innovators, and mentors like Dr. Vance, but it would also sever our connections with Columbia and other U.S.-based universities that choose to follow suit. As advocates, policymakers, and programmers working with marginalized groups and on contested issues relating to sexuality, poverty, health and human rights, we ourselves are often marginalized from resources and from providing input into important debates both within and outside the university. We fear that Columbia’s new financial model threatens to further undercut vital partnerships that cross the divides between university and community, as well as jeopardize innovative and critical thinking in the academic world.
We hope that this letter conveys at least some measure of the dismay that Dr. Vance’s termination has generated among advocates, NGOs and policy organizations around the world. We thank you for your attention, and ask that you take appropriate measures to reverse the decision to terminate Dr. Vance’s position and to reinstate her as quickly as possible.
We would very much appreciate acknowledgement of receipt of this letter, and again, thank you for your consideration.