On Oct. 5, it will have been exactly one year since the Georgetown University Women’s Center last had a program director. Laura Kovach, who led the Women’s Center from 2008 to 2019, was the first of two full-time staffers to vacate their position in the last year.
Without a director, program coordinator Karla Rondon continued running regular programming until her own departure from the Women’s Center in June. Neither of these positions have been filled by the university, leaving undergraduate program assistant Caroline Sarda (COL ’20) as the Women’s Center’s most experienced staff member, having worked there since her sophomore year.
The Women’s Center now has no full-time staff, relegating operations to three undergraduate students, two of which were hired this semester.
Despite these vacancies lasting for months, the university has just formed a committee comprised of students, faculty and staff that is set to meet this month in order to interview candidates in November.
As the Women’s Center continues to run without a permanent full-time director or coordinator, the brunt of the work falls on the student interns and other resource centers such as the LGBTQ Resource Center. Often underqualified and overloaded, the students are unable to provide the services that are expected of the Women’s Center with a full-time staff.
Picking up the Pieces
Since Kovach left last year, the prolonged search for her replacement — along with the lack of other professional full-time staff members — has detrimentally affected the Women’s Center’s ability to function at full capacity.
In an attempt to supplement the Women’s Center during the search for a full-time director, the LGBTQ Resource Center has filled in the gaps by supplementing student interns and co-hosting programming, according to Sarda.
In the beginning of the semester, Sarda was the only staffed worker left, since previous student workers had graduated or gone abroad.
As a result, student interns like Sarda have had to take on increased leadership responsibilities that have usually fallen to the director, such as training new interns. This semester, however, Sarda has also had to train student workers from the LGBTQ Resource Center to work at the Women’s Center to help bridge the gap in staffing.
“I definitely felt a sense of increased responsibility,” Sarda wrote. “I have had to come in at times when I’m not scheduled to in order to train them (and some new student workers at the LGBTQ Center), and have had to serve in a pseudo-coordinator position since I am the only returning student worker at either center this semester.”
In previous years, the Women’s Center hosted its own leadership events, including the Biondi Copeland Lecture Series on Women in Higher Education and Women Advancing Gender Equality fellowship workshops. The Biondi Copeland Lecture Series aimed to foster dialogue and increased visibility around issues facing women in leadership and higher education. The series was created by Kovach but has not been active since her departure.
While the Women’s Center is still providing basic resources such as pregnancy tests, pads and tampons, it has not planned independent programming this year, instead partnering with the LGBTQ Resource Center, and it discontinued hosting regular feminist roundtables and collaborations with student groups, according to Sarda.
While the Women’s Center was able to continue WAGE workshops and the VOICES retreat last year because of Rondon, her departure this June left the Women’s Center without any full-time staff.
Without the full-time support of a programming coordinator, student interns have been left without guidance on planning future independent programming, according to Sarda.
“We are not really able to do our own independent programming, and it’s unclear how we are supposed to go about co-sponsoring events with student groups,” Sarda said. “Us student workers have no idea what the center’s budget is for the year, and we have no real guiding, coordinating force behind any independent programming the women’s center would do. We really just never know what’s going on.”
The Women’s Center has not only ceased most independent programming, but has also significantly decreased its operating hours. While other centers like the LBGTQ Resource Center have maintained their regular hours, the Women’s Center has had to close many hours a day because of its lack of full-time staffing, according to the shift schedule.
An Ongoing Search
A year after Kovach’s departure, Georgetown University has still not found an adequate replacement for the Women’s Center’s leadership.
The university first formally announced the beginning of its search for a new leader of the Women’s Center back in January. University leaders emphasized engagement with student leaders as an integral part of their search, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson.
Almost one year after launching this process, however, the administration has only just created a committee of community members, according to Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Jeanne Lord.
“Last year we reviewed our structures and explored best practices in how to serve students optimally through our various centers,” Lord wrote in an email to the Hoya. “We also looked for opportunities to align resources to support more programming and minimize administrative tasks. Informed by that work, we’re convening a committee of students, faculty and staff, chaired by Dean Sue Lorenson and Charlene Brown-McKenzie, to search for a new leader for the Center.”
The committee plans to convene later this month to review applications and bring prospective candidates to campus in November, according to Lord.
In the interim, Lord has served as a form of an interim director, according to Sarda. Because the Women’s Center is overseen by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, administrators like Erika Cohen-Derr, assistant vice president in student affairs, have also been helping the student interns throughout the process.
Throughout the search, the LGBTQ Resource Center is committed to supplement the center in a time of transition, according to director Shiva Subbaraman.
“The leadership within Student Affairs has been engaged in thoughtful conversations about the Women’s Center, and a search for a new person to lead it will begin shortly,” Subbaraman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Meantime, the Women’s Center is open, and there are student staff in place, and they offer Coffee Hours along with the LGBTQ Center on Fridays to bring communities of students together. We always will continue to serve all students, and it has been important for us to be here for students during this time of transition.”
However, the delayed process has taken an unnecessary amount of time and placed extra stress on surrounding students and administrators, according to Sarda.
“I am definitely frustrated that it has taken this long to fill Laura’s position, and that my coworkers and I, Shiva, Erika Cohen-Derr, and Jeanne Lord have to deal with the consequences this semester,” Sarda said. “The university had all of last year — when there was at least [Rondon] leading the center — and the summer to fill the role, and it is only beginning to happen now.”
The director of the Women’s Center is not the only position the university has left vacant for a prolonged period of time, as the Title IX office has remained understaffed for two years.
Former Title IX Coordinator Laura Cutway left Georgetown in June 2018, leading Title IX Investigator Samantha Berner to serve as interim coordinator while maintaining her role as investigator during the yearlong search for a new coordinator.
Georgetown eventually promoted Berner to the role of permanent coordinator, leaving the role of investigator vacant. The university is still in the process of searching for a new Title IX investigator, marking the second consecutive year Georgetown did not have a fully staffed Title IX office at the start of the school year.
Since the Women’s Center is a resource for survivors of sexual assault, the university must hire properly trained staff members to serve in those positions, according to Kovach.
“As a listed resource for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, it is imperative that qualified, full-time staff are hired to work in the Women’s Center to support students, faculty and staff,” Kovach wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I hope the current leadership will address the critical lack of full-time staff with great urgency so the Center can continue to lead and care for the whole student as it has done for almost 30 years.”
The Women’s Center used to be a critical resource for student organizations like WAGE and Sexual Assault Peer Educators to provide resources to sexual assault survivors, according to Nora West (SFS ’15), a former WAGE fellow and SAPE member.
“The Women’s Center was a key supporter of SAPE and led a lot of the trainings that made that possible, which was huge for me as a survivor trying to fit back in after having a traumatic experience,” West said.
Creating a Solution
To sustain the Women’s Center as an effective resource without senior leadership, the LGBTQ Resource Center and student groups on campus have stepped up in solidarity.
Staff members from the LGBTQ Resource Center have had to alternate shifts in the Women’s Center to provide coverage beyond their explicit tasks, according to Sarda.
“One person from the LGBTQ center has to come and work here for a couple hours each week because people just aren’t here,” Sarda said. “Three people can’t fill a schedule. I feel like the university is really just stretching everyone over here too thin, and they need to consider that stress and potential burnout every day they’re not actively looking to fill the position.”
In the past, students have seen collaborative events as a chance to build solidarity between the centers, according to Adriana Zinn (NHS ’15), who worked at the Women’s Center between 2013 and 2015.
“The guest speakers we were able to bring in through the women’s center were huge for me in developing as a feminist,” Zinn said. “Having cross-sponsored events with the LGBT Center created a place where we were giving a voice to marginalized groups who may not have felt like Georgetown was their most natural fit.”
The two centers are co-hosting a coffee chat Oct. 4 titled, “Gender and the Women’s Center” with the hopes of discussing ways to create more inclusive programming, as well as hosting focus group sessions for interactive feedback.
This time of transition provides an opportunity to reimagine the Women’s Center’s purpose, according to Sarda.
“This moment of transition presents a great opportunity to rethink the relevance of a women’s center, especially regarding our changing understanding of gender,” Sarda said. “How do we move beyond the gender binary in the work that we do? How do we make ourselves more inclusive to transgender, gender-nonconforming and gender-fluid students? How can we create a new sense of community and purpose around the center?”
This article was corrected on October 4 to include a comment from Shiva Subbaraman. A previous version this article also previously incorrectly stated the Biondi Copeland Lecture Series had been discontinued.