"A Farewell Salute to the Women's Research Institute
of Brigham Young University"

Various WRI Faculty Affiliates

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall 2009)






            We would like to take a moment to recognize the passing of an era.  On 29 October 2009, Brigham Young University announced [1] that it was eliminating the Women’s Research Institute after 31 years of service to the university.  (Quotations below indicate excerpts from a 2008 report entitled, “The Women’s Research Institute,” [2] and are reproduced below with permission of the author.)

            “The Women’s Research Institute was established in 1978 by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, then President of Brigham Young University, and Dr. Marilyn Arnold, assistant to the president.  President Oaks and Dr. Arnold were fully supported in forming the Institute by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, then Commissioner of Church Education, and the Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University.  Barbara Smith, then President of the Relief Society for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also played a significant role in bringing about the Institute. [3]  President Smith had wanted the Institute to be housed in the Relief Society Building in Salt Lake City, but the Board of Trustees, Commissioner Holland, and President Oaks felt the Institute needed to be part of Brigham Young University where gathering and interpreting data related to women could be done within an academic framework.”
            The first director of the Institute was Ida Smith (1978-1983), followed by Mary Stovall (1983-88), Marie Cornwall (1989-93), Donna Lee Bowen and Carol Ward (co-directors, 1993-1994), and the Institute’s final director, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill (1994-2009).
            “As the Institute evolved, it became the central location for all aspects of academia at Brigham Young University that related to women.  Although it continued to collect and discuss information on women’s issues, it also became involved in: 1) educating female students regarding gender-related personal challenges, 2) providing women throughout the Church with opportunities to learn about and discuss women’s issues particularly as they pertain to spiritual development, 3) improving the professional like for female faculty members at Brigham Young University, and 4) promoting the scholarly study of women’s development and contributions to families, communities, and societies.”
            The Institute was the seed-bed for several important new institutions at BYU.  For example, Women’s Services and Resources, specifically tasked with providing important gender-related information to female students, was developed from the Women’s Research Institute in 1992.  Women’s Conference was overseen by the Women’s Research Institute from 1984 to 1989, when oversight was transferred to the Relief Society of the Church and the President’s Office of BYU.  The WRI continued to edit collections of speeches from the conference, resulting in edited volumes from 1989-1994.  “During the Institute’s 1993 annual retreat, it was proposed that the Faculty Women’s Association be organized to build upon the Institute’s accomplishments and expand support for female faculty.” 
            Since 1993, the primary focus of the Institute has been programmatic research in three areas: “1) studies designed to prevent gender-related violence and increase peace in individuals, homes, and communities, 2) longitudinal studies to determine effective ways to improve the lives of women in developing countries, especially through education, and 3) studies capitalizing on innovative technologies in order to create repositories of information documenting the conditions in which women live . . . as well as their contributions to society.”   In addition, the Women’s Research Institute oversaw the Women’s Studies Minor, which required students to take an interdisciplinary introductory course and a research capstone course for the students, in addition to several classes from a variety of disciplinary offerings.

Mission Statement
            “The Women’s Research Institute promotes the scholarly study of women’s unique patterns of development, their perspectives and contributions, and their involvement in families, religions, and societies throughout the world, with particular emphasis on identifying circumstances and relationships that improve women’s opportunities for peace, progression, and prosperity.”
            The establishment of center for the studies of women’s lives and contributions was not anomalous: almost every highly ranked university in the nation and in the world has established similar centers.  For example, the list of US institutions of higher learning having centers for the study of women include Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Cornell University, Brown University, Rice University, Vanderbilt University, UC-Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and many others.
            “The Women’s Research Institute accomplishes its mission by conducting programmatic research, supporting relevant research by faculty and students throughout the university, developing courses and the minor in Women’s Studies, and engaging faculty and student scholars in academic dialogue on women and gender.”  By the time of its elimination, the WRI had 83 faculty affiliates from every college and nearly every department on campus.
            “It is the goal of the Women’s Research Institute at Brigham Young University to build scholarship enlivened by knowledge that gender is eternal, provide new paradigms that benefit an emerging academic discipline, produce more accurate understanding of women’s lives and perspectives, and expand students’ intellectual achievements.  Through its scholarship it is hoped that the Institute will be able to satisfy increases in public interest in Mormon beliefs and practices regarding women . . .  and counter claims that 'Mormons and the Taliban treat their women the same way.'” [4] 

Programmatic Research
            The Institute was able to nurture and sponsor a series of outstanding research projects concerning women, using a small pool of research funds made available to faculty.  One of the most impressive was the ambitious “Peace, Violence, and Gender Project,” that was path-breaking in its detailed surveillance of children at play, using advanced video techniques to score interactions between children of the same and opposite sexes.  Over fifty publications and conferences papers have emerged from this project, and have caused psychologists to rethink some foundational assumptions about gender and violence.  To give but one example, they found that toddler boys do not show more aggression towards the same or the other sex than toddler girls, but there is a much higher levels of positive interaction between boys than there is found in all-girl or mixed-sex groups.
            This research expanded to examine the effects of witnessing violence in the home on boys and girls, and examining the intergenerational cycle of violence against women.  Based on these research findings, a model of peaceful and violent behavior in the home was developed, and provided the basis for the creation of strategies of violence prevention and conflict resolution.  These strategies were then codified into lesson plans that could be used in day care and school settings for young children.
            The Institute also facilitates research on the relationship between the situation of women and the aims of international development programs, especially as concerns literacy and education for women.    The Institute undertook formal evaluation research on several development projects, with particular emphasis on those of the Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance, which seeks to promote the welfare of women in Mali.  The WRI helped to assess programs in health care, literacy projects, informal banking networks, and community garden schemes.
            The WRI also sought to develop repositories of information on the situation of women and women’s accomplishments.  The Institute supported and housed the Mormon Women’s History Project, one of whose projects was to transcribe and study the diaries of Emmeline Wells.  The Institute helped to created a digital library of literary and scholarly works by women in the German language, and supported the cataloguing of the Women’s Manuscript Collection within the Harold B. Lee Library, as well facilitating the WomanStats Database Project which collects information on 293 variables concerning women for 174 countries.
            Within the period 2006-2008, over 132 publications resulted from faculty research projects funded by the Women’s Research Institute.  In addition, the WRI has been a member of the National Council for Research on Women since 2003.

Teaching and Dialogue
            The WRI was actively engaged in promoting scholarly dialogue on issues of importance to women.  This promotion included support for several high-profile conferences, including a Summit on Increasing Women’s Participation in Education in 2005, with Dr. Nelly Stromquist, world-renowned expert in the field as keynote speaker.  The WRI also supported two conferences on human trafficking, which brought internationally recognized expert Dr. Donna Hughes to campus.  Other sponsored conferences included the 2007 Women of the Mountains Conference, special participation in the 48th annual conference of the Comparative and International Educational Society, and several conferences sponsored within BYU departments and colleges.
            The WRI is also noteworthy for its weekly research colloquia.  Every Thursday at noon, the WRI either invites a noted guest speaker from the faculty of other universities, or highlights research performed by WRI faculty affiliates, or sponsors the showing of films related to women’s concerns with a concluding Q&A between students and faculty experts.  The WRI also sponsored a student research grant competition, as well as student scholarship competitions.
            The WRI oversaw the Women’s Studies Minor at BYU, teaching an introductory and interdisciplinary Women’s Studies course, along with a research capstone.  Nineteen credits were required for credit in the Minor, and enrollment in the various courses listed in the Women’s Studies Minor curriculum totaled 2,691 students.  Formal evaluation of the program revealed tremendous support for the program from current students, current faculty, and alumni.
            The Institute accomplished its objectives on a bare bones budget, and with only one and one-half full-time personnel as administration.  The university provided yearly support to the Institute that amounted to the average salary of one full professor.  The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences provided yearly support totaling approximately one-half of the salary of a beginning assistant professor.  The WRI was proactive in finding external funds, and 52% of its budget came from non-BYU sources. [5]  The WRI was tasked with doing more with less in the last several years of its existence, and succeeded admirably in the face of that challenge.

            The elimination of the WRI was expressed as a “streamlining and strengthening” [6] of BYU programs in the area of women’s studies.  While the Women’s Studies Minor is to be housed in the Sociology Department (i.e., an interdisciplinary major housed in a disciplinary department), there will no longer be coordinated facilitation at BYU of research and scholarly dialogue concerning women, apart from one university-wide faculty research award and the transfer from the WRI of a small amount of research money for research on women to be given out by the university’s Office of Research and Creative Activities. Within the last twenty years of record-keeping, no other university in the country has eliminated its center of research concerning women.  We hope the anomaly of this move on the part of BYU will not be misinterpreted by those who erroneously believe that the LDS Church is not a friend to women and does not consider women's issues to be important.  Only time will tell if the envisioned strengthening will in fact take place at BYU.

            In conclusion, we offer a farewell salute to the Women’s Research Institute and all that it has accomplished in its 31 years of existence.  We also salute all those who labored so hard to make its programs and research and teaching of the highest quality.  Dear WRI, rest in peace.



[1] “BYU Reorganizes Women’s Studies Program,” BYU Press Release, 29 October 2009. [Back to manuscript]

[2] “The Women’s Research Institute,” October, 2008, unpublished manuscript. [Back to manuscript]

[3] J.M. Derr, J.R. Cannon, and M.U. Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, Salt Lake City: Deseret book, 1992. [Back to manuscript]

[4] C. Helman, "Rival Camps Take Aim at Romney's Religion," The Boston Globe, 21 June 2007. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Statistics given are from “The Women’s Research Institute,” op cit. [Back to manuscript]

[6] BYU Press Release, op cit. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Various WRI Faculty Affiliates (2009) "A Farewell Salute to the Women's Research Institute of Brigham Young University," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleWRIFarewell.html, accessed [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 300 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 2 Comments

1) Chad F. Emmett, 7 November 2009

A place for women
I was saddened to hear of the demise of the Women’s Research institute (WRI). The spin on the announcement made it sound as if women’s studies at BYU was somehow being strengthened by eliminating the WRI. Curious logic! Additional funding is great and keeping the women’s studies minor is commendable, but to do away with the central place that brings faculty and students together in pursuit of promoting the betterment of women worldwide is disheartening.

I am a late comer to women studies. As a political geographer I have spent most of my time dealing with territorial disputes between Palestinians and Israelis and in trying to promote greater cooperation between Muslims and Christians in the Islamic world. When an invitation came to study the linkages between women and world peace, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my research interests. What began as two faculty and a few students nomadically wandering from one office or seminar room to another, gradually evolved into a group of five PIs from three universities and a host of student researchers who would meet annually (the PIs) and weekly (core faculty and students) in the library of the WRI to discuss data gathering, methods, sources, ideas and publications. The WRI became the place for stimulating discussion and invigorating work across the disciplines and among faculty and students.

Our research project was also enhanced by grants from the WRI. These grants helped keep our project going and thus facilitated wonderful mentoring opportunities including more than a few ORCA grants for student projects about women. Over the years we also benefitted from exposure to visiting scholars from around the world who were brought to BYU by the WRI. Many of these scholars and practitioners were interviewed by our research assistants adding rich detail and filling in data holes in our ever-expanding WomenStats data base.

I count the time spent in association with the WRI as some of the richest and most rewarding times of my fifteen years at BYU.

Chad Emmett


2) Emily Belanger, 7 November 2009

As a recent BYU graduate, a current BYU grad student, and an alumnus of the Women's Studies program, I am heartbroken and disturbed by this decision. The Women's Research Institute has always been a beacon of hope to many of us who feel concern over issues relating to gender and women. When so many individuals and groups outside the church mistakenly believe that the gospel marginalizes women, I used to be able to hold up the example of the WRI in order to combat those myths. The existence of the WRI and the great work it produces demonstrated that BYU, the church, and Heavenly Father value women enough to provide scholars a space to collaborate and research women's issues together. The WRI provided women's research a room of its own.

We can't forget that the issues that effect women, and that the WRI has researched are issues that affect everyone. Issues like domestic abuse, international literacy rates, poverty, and pornography. Through the Women's Research Institute and the women's studies program it housed while I was in the minor, I learned how to conduct extensive and professional research into these types of issues, issues about which most Latter-day Saints care deeply. Through the WRI I gained the empowerment I need in order to make a positive contribution to the world.

Although BYU is setting aside some of the money that normally goes into the institute, and is using that money for a campus-wide faculty grant, closing the WRI removes the central location that is absolutely necessary for the kind of interdisciplinary work that the WRI has always produced so well. Individual research projects about women are a positive contribution to the university, but without the collaboration that the WRI has provided ever since Dallin H Oaks started it 31 years ago, the research, the faculty, and the student body will all suffer.

While I appreciate the university's efforts to salvage the women's studies program by moving it to the college of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, the decision to move the minor there reflects a poor understanding of the field of women's studies. An interdisciplinary major cannot be housed within a single discipline without losing the life and vitality so necessary to it. The kind of collaboration and interdisciplinary outreach that characterized the WRI and BYU's women's studies program is far too rare in today's competitive academic world. The loss of that space for collaboration is what I will mourn most.


3) Cassandra Scheerer, Katie Vaggalis, Sara Vranes; 14 November 2009

We, as students at Brigham Young University are speaking out for a true strengthening of Women's Studies at BYU. This is our legacy. We have already begun speaking up and reaching out to those involved in the decision-making process. We want to dialogue with the people responsible, and we would like you to help by spreading the word, as well.

We ask your readers to inform themselves and SIGN THE PETITION!!!! You can even sign anonymously, if that is your preference.
This is the official website of our movement and has a link to the petition to electronically sign.
It also includes addresses where people can send letters and links to other sites with more information.

WRI's offical site

BYU's official press release


Our facebook group page

Please keep in mind that this is petition is being signed by those who consider themselves to be true friends of BYU and the LDS Church. We desire only that a true strengthening of Women's Studies take place, which will reflect well on both BYU and the Church. This a human issue affecting those who are involved in the research of the WRI and those who would benefit from that research.

Above all, we need signatures on our online petition by Monday evening. A direct link: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/the-creation-of-a-women39s-research-council

And there is also a link from our website (http://supportWRI.org), which has a copy of the fliers we handed out on BYU campus last week.

Thank you!