Political Science Professor Page Fortna – DT008
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Page Fortna is the Harold Brown Professor of US Foreign and Security Policy at Columbia University. She’s the author of two books, Peace Time: Cease-Fire Agreements and the Durability of Peace, and Does Peacekeeping Work?: Shaping Belligerents’ Choices after Civil War. Her research has appeared in leading international relations journals, including International Organization, World Politics, International Studies Quarterly, and International Studies Review.
Professor Fortna speaks with Dean Harris about how she came to focus on terrorism as an area of study, what her experience has been like researching terrorism via field research, some of the policy implications of her findings, as well as her work on gender equity in the field of political science.
Harold Brown Professor of US Foreign and Security Policy at Columbia University
Political Science Professor Page Fortna – DT008
Fred: Page Fortna is the Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy at Columbia University. She’s the author of two books, the first titled, Peace Time: Cease-Fire Agreements and the Durability of Peace. Her second book, Does Peacekeeping Work?: Shaping Belligerents’ Choices After Civil War, investigates the number, size, and scope of peacemaking missions that are deployed in the aftermath of civil wars. Her research has appeared in leading international relations journals, including International Organization, World Politics, International Studies Quarterly, and The International Studies Review. Page’s research combines both field work and quantitative methods, draws on a variety of theoretical perspectives, and focuses on policy-relevant research. Her most recent work explores the role of terrorism in civil wars. I invited Page to The Dean’s Table to discuss what her experience has been in researching terrorism via field research, the policy implications of her findings, and her work on gender equity in the discipline of political science. Welcome to The Dean’s Table, Page.
Page Fortna: Thanks, Fred.
Fred: So, Page, when I was an undergraduate, I majored in political science because I thought I wanted to be a civil rights attorney. You were an undergraduate at Wesleyan. How did you come to deciding on pursuing a PhD focused on international relations?
Page Fortna: I got interested in international relations and conflict and the things that I study now way, way back. I give credit or blame, I’m not sure which, to my parents. My father was an academic, and he was a religion professor, a New Testament scholar —
Page Fortna: Yup. So, we traveled when he was on sabbatical. We traveled when I was three, and when I was 10, we lived in the Middle East, in Jerusalem and occupied West Bank. Then, when I was a senior in high school, we spent a year in South Africa. He taught at a black seminary in South Africa. This was under apartheid. So, I had these experiences, every seven years living in a conflict zone. So, even though I wasn’t at all interested in politics when I was a little kid, once I got to college, I was very interested in international travel, international history, international politics. I found political science and international relations as a set of classes that I could continue those interests in international things in general and conflict in particular. So, that’s kind of how I got to studying political science as an undergrad. Then, I had an undergraduate mentor, Martha Crenshaw, who was just a really inspiring teacher, and she really encouraged me to think about graduate school. I guess being an academic kid, it was a career choice that wasn’t a mystery. It was kind of on my radar as something that I might think about doing. So, then with some encouragement as an undergrad, that’s why I went the route that I went.
Fred: Also, I believe I read somewhere that you worked at a think tank devoted to the study of international relations after college?
Page Fortna: Yeah. So, for two years after, I was pretty sure I wanted to get a PhD, but I was also thinking a little bit about maybe a policy career. And so, partly on Martha Crenshaw’s advice to sort of take a break from school and make sure before I went into a PhD that I really wanted to to do that, and then also to kind of explore the policy world, I went and worked at the Henry Stimson Center in D.C., which is a very small — then especially, it’s a little bigger now — but it was a tiny, little think tank. So, I did entry level stuff. I did everything from answering the phones to doing real research. It was a nice exploration of the think tank world and I learned a ton there, but I also realized the kind of research I wanted to do. I wanted to do more academic-rigorous research that was still policy-relevant, but that wasn’t driven by policy conclusions that you thought somebody wanted you to reach. So —
Fred: So, what’s funny about that — we had a similar experience. Of course, I wasn’t interested, at least as an academic interest, in international relations, but I, too, spent two years after college in Washington D.C. at a think tank. It was then called The Joint Center for Political Studies, and it was a think tank focused on domestic issues related to civil rights. My experience there for two years sort of led me to believe that, “I think I don’t want to so much do policy specific. I want to do more work focused on the rigor of the study of politics.” And so, it led me there, but I think I came back to the policy-relevant part later in my career. But this is about you.
So, my other question is that, could you say a little bit about what your experience was at Harvard when you were in graduate school? How did you come to focus on studying specifically peacemaking and terrorism?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, terror — I wasn’t really focused on terrorism at that point yet, ironically, because Martha Crenshaw, my undergraduate advisor, is a terrorism expert. But at that point, I wasn’t really focused on that at all. I was at Harvard; my advisor was Bob Cohen, who is mostly an international political economy scholar, but studying theoretical questions around international cooperation. I was interested in security questions, conflict kinds of questions. But it seemed to me that there was a way to pull the theory that was mostly being applied to international questions of economic cooperation — pull those to the study of cooperation on the security field. So, I was kind of drawn to those theories, but the subject matter at that time was dominated by realism. This was at the height of what in I.R. we refer to as “the -ism wars” — the realists versus the institutionalists versus the constructivists. So, the theory debates were big. Thankfully, we have moved past those.
Fred: Now, for our listeners who may not know, could you just briefly tell us, what is realism?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, I mean, very briefly, realism is a theory of international politics that really focuses on power and is quite pessimistic about — in general, pessimistic about — the ability of states to cooperate. Institutionalism talks about the ways in which international institutions can be set up to overcome some of the obstacles to cooperation. And so, my advisor, Bob Cohen, was kind of a leading proponent of the institutionalist wing at the height of those wars. So, for me, it was kind of taking these theoretical debates and then applying them to a set of questions that, from my own life experience and for policy reasons, I was more interested in than the ones on the economic side, which were less interesting to me personally.
Fred: Right, so, your first book, Peace Time: Cease-Fire Agreements and the Durability of Peace, that book explores why some cease-fire agreements last for years, while others are short-lived. Tell us what you discovered in that study — what are the best ways for peace to be maintained in the aftermath of wars?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, this was kind of building on these institutionalist ideas about how states that maybe want to cooperate, but have trouble cooperating, can do so. So, I was looking at states that were deadly enemies by definition. They’d been fighting a war and then they come to some end to the war, some sort of agreement, and they have to try to craft something that will make that peace stick. And so, I looked at a number of mechanisms having to do with the agreement themselves, how specific the agreement was, and then also more concrete things. Was there a demilitarized zone set up? Was there a peacekeeping mission put in place? Were there conflict resolution mechanisms — kind of like, institution with a small “i” — institution-building between former enemies to try to make peace stick? And then the book is about evaluating whether they work. So, I guess I don’t know if it was the most surprising thing to me, but the idea at the time, particularly from realists, was that peace agreements are just scraps of paper. They don’t really mean anything. And so, I was kind of trying to flesh out how they can mean something if they are institutionalized to some extent.
Fred: What does your second book, Does Peacekeeping Work?, focus on?
Page Fortna: The second one Does Peacekeeping Work?, [focuses] on one specific aspect of how to make peace last, but in that case, looking at civil wars instead of wars between states.
Fred: So, could you tell me, does that involve rebels?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, the first book came out of my dissertation and when I started it, I thought I was going to look at all kinds of wars: wars between states, civil wars within states. And then, that quickly became obvious that was just too big empirically to do in one project. So, I kind of split it apart and the first book was about interstate wars and peace agreements and looking at peacekeeping as part of that, but just one part of that. Then, in the second book, I picked up the study of civil conflicts and focused just on this one mechanism of peacekeeping. So, it was a different set of cases, but the theory behind it is quite similar.
Fred: Okay, so, both scholars and rebels or rebel groups have different ideas of what constitutes terrorism. So, how do you define terrorism?
Page Fortna: Yeah, okay, so, this is now moving onto the third project, which is the book that isn’t yet. This is the book I’m working on now. So, I got into the study of terrorism a little bit accidentally. And actually, here I can give credit or blame again back to Martha Crenshaw because when she left Wesleyan, there was a bit of a Festschrift panel for her at A.P.S.A. — at the American Political Science Association meetings. And I didn’t study terrorism, but I studied civil wars. I was in the midst of this project on peacekeeping, looking at a lot of different civil wars and rebel groups and governments, and I knew that a lot of terrorism happened in the context of civil war. So, I wrote a paper for this panel honoring her. That was supposed to be just a little side project for me, but I realized in that project that looking at civil wars as a kind of set of cases, a universe of cases, in which to study terrorism was really fruitful. So, that paper then was the germ that turned into this big project I’ve been working on for a long time now.
Fred: And is this the case study, the cases of 104 rebel groups, that you’ve looked at?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, now to get to your question about definition of terrorism. So, I’m studying terrorism in the context of civil wars. There’s variation in the use of terrorism. Some rebel groups use this tactic not at all, some use it some, some use it a lot, some it varies over time how much they use it. So, I needed a definition of terrorism that was — there are tons and tons of definitions of terrorism. There are almost as many definitions of terrorism as there are scholars of terrorism. It’s kind of a problem in the field that there’s not a consensus on —
Fred: Do you have a unique perspective on —
Page Fortna: I don’t know if it’s unique. I think I have a perspective that’s useful for the research project I’m working on and I think is helpful in trying to remove some of the loaded — I mean, it’s always going to be a loaded term, but I wanted a definition of terrorism that wasn’t “actors we don’t like,” right? That if we don’t like them, or we don’t like what they’re fighting for, we call them terrorists, and if we do like what they’re fighting for, we call them freedom fighters. I didn’t want that.
Fred: That’s my next question.
Page Fortna: Yeah, exactly. So, the definition is narrower than some. It’s a deliberate use of indiscriminate violence against civilians. So, the pieces that are important of that are that it’s indiscriminate violence which separates it from something that almost all rebel groups and almost all governments do in civil wars, which is target specific people who they think are collaborating with the other side, or to try to get them to collaborate, so that’s most of the violence against civilians in civil wars. But it’s not what we think of, really, as like quintessential terrorism, and if I defined it that way, there’d be no variation, right? All rebel groups do that, and governments. So, it’s indiscriminate violence and it’s deliberately indiscriminate. So, it’s not like, “We meant to kill this person, but by mistake we killed these other people because we couldn’t tell who was collaborating with us and who wasn’t.” This is like blowing up buses, marketplaces, where the point is that random civilians will get killed as a way of instilling fear in the population. The issue of the sort of “freedom fighter” versus “terrorist” — I try really hard to have the definition be based on the kinds of tactics that a group uses and not what they’re fighting for.
Fred: So, that’s how you parse out the difference?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, you could be using terrorism for a good cause or a bad cause. You could be fighting for a terrible cause and not use terrorism by this definition. So, that what you’re fighting for and how you’re fighting — that’s the distinction I’m trying to make.
Fred: So, the perceptions of elites or decision makers — it doesn’t matter if the predominant view is that they are freedom fighters or —
Page Fortna: No, so, to take an example: the ANC, the African National Congress, in South Africa, fighting for a cause that I believe was a just cause. They didn’t use a lot of terrorism, but they did sometimes blow people up randomly. And so, that gets called terrorism, even though they were also — you can be both a freedom fighter and a terrorist under this definition.
Fred: Right, so, I want to go back a bit because it’s interesting that you use the ANC example. So, where were you in South Africa?
Page Fortna: We spent some of the time in Cape Town, but most of the time we lived in what was then one of the homelands in the Transkei, in a town called Umtata.
Fred: Oh, really? Did you see or experience any political violence while you were there?
Page Fortna: It was around, but at a bit of a distance. So, there were times when we went into some of the townships, and you could see burn marks from where things had been burning and there was definitely a sort of sense of fear. Desmond Tutu, who was not yet Archbishop, but was then Bishop, he was the Bishop of the diocese where the seminary that my dad taught at was. So, he came and visited. I like to say Desmond Tutu slept in my bed. [LAUGHS] I slept in the study while he slept in my bed, but he visited us. When he came, he had to be spirited away afterwards in an — there was like three cars and it was hidden which car he was going to be in —
Fred: So, you remember all these details?
Page Fortna: Yeah, this was when I was seventeen, so yeah, I remember that.
Fred: You weren’t fearful about being there, knowing what was happening? I’m suspecting this is during the height of the Anti-Apartheid Movement?
Page Fortna: Yeah, this was the height of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I was not fearful there. So, partly, there was not a lot of violence in the Transkei itself. So, we were reading about it, and people at home were really worried about us because they were reading about all this violence, but it was not really close to where we were and the people who were in danger were not white Americans. It was — Desmond Tutu was in danger. But one thing that was interesting in that case was that there were places — I talked about going into the townships — my mom and I could go in and my dad was advised not to because people would assume that as a white male that he was South African security forces. So, then he might’ve been a target, but my mom and I, there are some places that we could go that he couldn’t. So, I guess in retrospect, maybe that was like, there’s a little bit of a feeling of danger, but I never felt personally in danger at all.
Fred: Well, this is a nice point to transition because just this year, you were in Sri Lanka and doing field research. You were on a research sabbatical, and on April 21, 2019, there was a violent attack that erupted in Sri Lanka. What was your initial reaction?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, this was interesting because I was there studying terrorism, and this was an act of terrorism, but it wasn’t by the group that — I was studying the civil war that was already over — by the Tamil Tigers, a defunct group. So, it wasn’t the case I was studying, but the thing that I studied happened. So, when it happened — I think this is often the case when you’re in a place, the way it kind of unfolds feels very different than when you’re reading about it from afar. So, tons of outpouring of emails and phone calls, people making sure we were okay because people knew we were in Sri Lanka, and they knew there was this attack in Sri Lanka. But from where we were, we were in our apartment, it was Easter morning. We were planning to go to a hotel for Easter brunch, and I got an alert on my phone that something had happened, and I started trying to find out more about what happened and started — the news kind of trickled out that some churches had been attacked and some hotels had been attacked. And we had a little debate like, “Should we hunker down and stay home? Should we still go to this hotel where we’re going to go to the brunch?” I called the hotel, “Is brunch still on?” They said, “Yeah. It’s going to be less of a big deal than they’d planned, a big Easter brunch, and there’ll be security. You won’t be able to drive right outside, but yeah, you can come.”
So, we went, which in retrospect either was really idiotic, because we went to a hotel of the type of the hotels that had been targeted, or it was perfectly fine because at that point the security forces had already come and rounded up everybody and there really wasn’t a threat anymore. So, we didn’t feel personally unsafe. The country then really shut — as the implications of the attack kind of came out. The country shut down for two weeks. So, we were kind of stuck like kids at the end of two weeks of spring break for my two daughters. And then, their school was closed for two more weeks. So, we were sort of — we were highly inconvenienced, but we didn’t feel unsafe. Thinking about the security situation there, the biggest threat to us we felt like would be coming around the corner and stumbling on violence. So, this was an attack by a very small fringe Muslim group, but the reaction to it — there was a lot of anti-Muslim violence by the Sinhalese majority, sort of taking revenge on people, so that we were like, “Okay, let’s be a little bit careful what kind of neighborhoods we’re in. Something might get ugly kind of unexpectedly in that sense.” And I saw some of that. Not the actual violence, but driving through places where shops had been ransacked the night before and that kind of thing.
Fred: Did it impact your research at all? Or did it even illustrate or enhance or change your view about what was going on on the ground, while you were — after this incident?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, it changed. It was very — as I said, it wasn’t the case I was studying specifically, but it was very interesting to see a country that had had a long experience with terrorism and thought it had put it behind it, then have this other attack. It was almost like the country has P.T.S.D. and the reminder of the insecurity from during the war. In my view, really, like from an outsider who hadn’t been through that, it felt like the country was really overreacting. But people had all these fears from what it had been like before and a feeling like, “Oh God, we’re going back to that again.” So, it was kind of understandable that people didn’t trust the government when the government said it’s safe to have schools reopen. They didn’t believe it. They kept their kids home. So, that — seeing those dynamics was really interesting for me. Not stuff that was specifically, directly related to what I was studying about why the Tamil Tigers had used terrorism, but just seeing how it played out.
And then, it also affected my research in that, first of all, I couldn’t do any research for two weeks because everybody just stayed home. I couldn’t do interviews. And then people were — there were — some of the interviews — I was hoping to get a survey off the ground and people thought this is not a good time to be asking anything about these topics. Having a survey would mean strangers showing up in a town and asking questions. Let’s not do that right now. So, there was kind of this dampening on the ability to do some of what I was doing. So, in some ways it was really enlightening, and in some ways it kind of hampered my research.
Fred: Is this the longest period you ever have been in the field — based in your research?
Page Fortna: Yeah. So, for my first book, I didn’t do field work. I was a starving grad student and studying cases where it would have been really hard to get people to talk to me. The second project, I did very short stints, like two to three weeks in each of three cases. Just like: hit the ground, do a ton of interviews, but not get the real feel of a place that you can get. So, to be someplace for nine months, to really sink into it —
Fred: So, how’s the field research different from the previous work you’ve done, which is more — I wouldn’t say empirical-based cause it’s all empirical, but a more quantitative?
Page Fortna: So, in my view, they’re really important compliments because there’s stuff when you’re in a particular case, you can get into great depth and you can understand lots and lots of nuance. But it’s easy to lose the big picture of how this case compares to others or whether this case is an unusual case or a typical case. So, I’d done a lot of the quantitative stuff first. I had this kind of big picture, and then I wanted to do a deep dive. So, I think there are things that you can learn from the quantitative stuff that you can’t learn in the field and there’s stuff you can learn in the field that you can’t learn sitting on a computer, but I think especially studying political violence, this is — it’s the human element of it. It’s easy to lose track of when you’re sitting at your computer, crunching numbers. You forget that you’re tallying up attacks and how many people are killed. And when you’re there you’re like, “Oh right, those were people killed who had families,” and you know that that kind of larger implication stuff hits you in a way that is important.
Fred: And this will be a book, right?
Page Fortna: I hope so.
Fred: Do you think you’ll tell the story — I don’t want to call it a story because as social scientists, we don’t do fictional work, but the way that you present the work will be different because you’ve had far more contacts and living the experience — not direct experience — but in the country?
Page Fortna: Yeah, I think so. I know that there are things that I’ve learned by being there that I couldn’t have learned without going and those will come through in the book. Some of them are things that now — they’re things that happened in the Sri Lankan War or that mattered for the use of terrorism in that case that people repeatedly told me were important — and now I want to go see if they’re important in other places, too. So, there’s kind of a theory building or hypothesis generating aspect of it, but things I definitely wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t been there. So, in that direct sense, yes, there will definitely be things in the book that my answers will be different because I was there.
This is something I kind of grapple with in my own work as a positivist social scientist who, you know, we put a lot of premium on being objective and neutral and kind of dehumanizing what we study in a lot of ways. And being in the field, as I just said, it really humanizes things. So, how to deal with that in the book? Like, do I think a lot of people sort of put stuff in the preface that talks about their own experience and then in the book they just go back into objective, positivist mode? I think there’s some that feels like — it can feel like a kind of artificial separation between these two modes. But I wasn’t doing proper ethnography or using real interpretivist methods, so I’m trying to figure out how to balance that and how to talk about things about my perspective as a white professor at a prestigious American university studying this conflict; how that made the people I was talking to, both elites I was interviewing and then sort of ordinary people I was interacting with, how that shaped what they might have told me or not told me or how they reacted to me. So, I’m trying to be sensitive to some of those things that come from more interpretivist methodologies, while still retaining the thinking about this in terms of hypothesis testing and those kinds of things as a more positivist social scientist.
Fred: One of the most fascinating things about your work, at least that I think is fascinating, is that it’s solution driven. It provides some answers. And as political scientists, we are great at describing things and not necessarily prone to giving solutions based on what we find.
In an essay on terrorism written in The Atlantic Magazine, you’re quoted as saying, “Don’t overestimate the potential for success of groups that use terrorism. That is, don’t let the bogeyman of terrorism lead to the overestimation of their military capabilities.” Could you say more about what you meant about that?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, this is a finding that comes out of an article on the effectiveness of terrorism. This was kind of the first piece of this project that I tackled, ans what I find in that study is that rebel groups who use terrorism do not do very well in their wars. They’re much less likely to win their wars outright. In fact, in this set of cases I was looking at, they never win their wars outright. The groups that use terrorism, they’re less likely to get the government to concede and get a negotiated settlement that gives them some of what they’re fighting for. They’re more likely to be defeated. So, in terms of achieving their political goals, it’s not an effective mechanism. The literature at the time kind of said the opposite; that this is a technique that’s used because it’s effective, and I think that adds to the scariness of it, right? If you think not only is this going to kill people randomly, but it’s also going to work? These horrible people who use these horrible methods are going to win. That kind of adds to this notion of, “We have to go all out in the War on Terror, and counterterrorism is super important, and we have to take draconian measures.” And it turns out, no. It’s not a particularly effective method because it alienates people, and it doesn’t generally degrade the military forces of the other side. So, it’s not good for doing things that rebel groups are trying to do. I think there’s been since 9/11, in the U.S. and in the West, there’s been this — counterterror has become the most important kind of security policy, and I think a lot of that is overblown because there’s a sense that these people are more powerful than they are.
Fred: So, but in your work, how do you go about evaluating the effectiveness of terrorism?
Page Fortna: Yeah, so, in that paper, again, this is looking at terrorism in the context of civil war. So, I look at a whole set of civil wars. That paper is a purely quantitative paper. I’m looking at a whole set of civil wars and how they ended. Did they end with the government winning? Did they end with the rebels winning? Did they end with a negotiated solution, which is kind of a second-best outcome from the rebels perspective to get the government to — governments are defending the status quo, rebels are trying to change it. So, if there’s a negotiated settlement, it’s usually moving things towards the rebels’ position. Did the war kind of fizzle out with the rebel group not totally defeated, but kind of no longer causing trouble? Or is it an ongoing war? So, I kind of put those on a spectrum from government victory on one side to rebel victory on the other side. And then, I won’t bore you or our listeners with the details of the statistical model, but looking at how the use of terrorism, controlling for a bunch of other things — whether it makes rebels more likely to end up on the more successful end of that continuum or the less successful end of that continuum — and they end up on the less successful end of that continuum.
Fred: This is interesting. So, I want to shift gears a minute. I want to talk about equity issues in the discipline, our discipline of political science. As you know, the discipline is — it’s occurring within the academy more widely — reckoning with the issues of equity. Gender equity, to be more specific. Now, you’ve been vocal about the challenges that women face in the profession. You were, I have to say, excellent on this issue as the Chair of the Political Science Department here at Columbia, but you’ve also served on the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Women’s Advancement in the Profession. The report, titled Would I Do This All Over Again? Mid-Career Voices in Political Science, came out just this year. Now, the committee conducted in depth interviews with a select cohort of PhD students, both men and women, who were in three graduate programs in political science during the 1990s, and who are currently now mid-career. The report identified key factors shaping the choices at critical junctures in women’s careers and highlights the constraints that inform how women and men experience the profession at all stages, including initial decisions to even pursue a PhD, as we’ve talked about earlier in your case, their experience in graduate school, and on the job market. I found many of the narratives in that report to be really gripping, and I’ve read others in other disciplines. There are many of these stories of women who are experiencing challenges within the discipline. Why do you feel there was a need to have such a report?
Page Fortna: So, I think the numbers of people who’ve been studying political science as undergrads and even going on to grad school, it’s been relatively gender-balanced for a long time, but we still don’t have gender balance within professorial ranks and especially post-tenure and full professors. So, we know that there is a leaky pipeline, right? People, women are dropping out. Women and minorities are dropping out more than white men. So, we have those numbers and there’ve been some studies, some quantitative studies looking at this. And when we started — the coauthors of this report and I who were on this sort of sub-task force of the larger APSA task force — we were thinking about, well how could we get at this leaky-pipeline problem to try to understand it? Because I think there’s a lot of speculation about why the pipeline leaks and where it leaks, and we wanted to get people’s own stories about this. And so, one way to do that would be to identify people who started graduate school around when we did, and we use the fact that some of the programs that were a part of our study were our own programs. We use the fact that we knew these folks to do this study. And we wanted to get the long view of how people’s careers had unfolded, and to include not just the people who stayed in the academy, but also people who “leaked out.” I don’t think the people who left the academy think of themselves as having leaked, but from the perspective of being in the academy, they’re the people who are missing, who might’ve stayed in this profession, and chose to do something else. And so, why? So, that was kind of the idea, to get the people who we don’t run into at conferences and talk to within the profession because by definition they’ve left. And then also to compare their stories with the stories of people who stayed in. And also, to get some ideas of the challenges people who stayed in faced and whether there were big gender differences, and to kind of flesh out the real human stories behind what we know from the numbers.
Fred: Yeah, so, what are the one or two biggest disparities that you see from that report that contribute to the leak?
Page Fortna: So, I think there was a general sense — and it’s hard, you know, it’s a relatively small number of people, so it’s a little bit idiosyncratic, but a kind of general and diffuse sense among women, and exacerbated for women and minorities, that the — of a kind of what we would refer to as “a chilly climate” or lack of support, right? The people didn’t feel like they fit. They didn’t feel like they got great mentoring. They didn’t feel like — they’ve kind of — it always felt like an uphill battle. I think that that kind of came through in the stories. And again, not everybody, right? Not all men felt like everything was great and not all women felt like everything was awful, but there was a general tendency in that direction. And then I think issues of balancing career with partners, children, taking care of elderly parents — all of that tended to fall more on women, and women are much more likely to be in two-career couples. So, the problem within academia, that you don’t get to decide what city you’re going to live in, what place you’re going to live in, and then find a job. You have to follow where the jobs are. That’s really hard if you’re in a two-career family. That’s really hard on men who are in two-career families, but more women academics are in two-career families than male academics. So — and we kind of knew that, you know? But seeing how that played out for people, of the choices that they had when they were on the job market, or they went someplace where they were then in a long-distance relationship, and how people made the choices to try to make that work, and whether that worked or not, and the toll that took. All those kinds of things kind of come out in the stories.
Fred: So, did you discover something from participating on the task force that you did not already know?
Page Fortna: No, there wasn’t anything that was a total surprise. It was more confirming and sometimes not confirming. Some things weren’t as stark that. I think maybe as somebody who’s been active on these issues within academia, it can start to feel like it’s a starker problem or a more universal kind of set of problems. So, that was good to get some reality check on all that. I think one of the things that was maybe most surprising to me, or most enlightening, was the way people who had left academia talked about it. Because again, I’m an academic, I tend to talk professional stuff with other academics, right? So, I get that side of the story more, and to hear why people who left left, and nobody said like, “This was a profession that was completely unwelcoming to women, and so I left.” It was all much more subtle stuff. People made choices, and people were happy with the careers they went on to and the choices they made, but sort of feeling like there had been this unwelcoming atmosphere within academia.
Fred: So, you’ve traveled many places. You’ve been in a lot of dangerous situations, perhaps, as we just mentioned, all over the world. But there seems to be one magical place that you keep going back to. That’s the state of Oregon. What is so magical? Everywhere. [LAUGHS] Everybody’s looking for her. Where’s Page? Where’s Page? She’s in Oregon.
Page Fortna: She’s in Portland. Yeah, well, it is a pretty magical place, but this is a two-career family issue. So, my husband’s an artist. He makes large sculptures and a lot of what he does, he can do anywhere. He applies for projects and designs projects, and that he can — does from our apartment here in Columbia housing. But when he’s actually building the projects, he needs a big, you know, industrial shop space, too, because he builds really big, up to 30-foot-tall sculptures, moving sculptures; public art, so big, great big things. So, he needs space. And he’s from Portland, and his family is there. We have good friends there that are his old friends. So, we have this community there that I married into. And so, our kind of arrangement, which we’re — which is not a compromise, we both feel we both really love both places — is that we spend the academic year when I’m teaching here in New York, and summers and times when I’m on leave, if we’re not off gallivanting around Sri Lanka or someplace, we spend out in Portland so that he has access to his shop space there.
Fred: Great, now we have the story.
Page Fortna: Yup, that’s why I’m bi-coastal.
Fred: Right, well, what a wonderful story. Seems like a beautiful place, Portland.
Page Fortna: It’s great, and it’s especially great in the summer, which is when we get to spend time there mostly. So yeah, it’s good.
Fred: Well, thanks Page for coming through The Dean’s Table. This has been wonderful.
Page Fortna: Thanks so much for having me. This has been fun.
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The Dean’s Table is produced by Ursula Sommer with production assistance from Jack Reilly. Our technical engineers are A.J. Mangone and Airiayana Sullivan. Our researchers are Emma Flaherty and Angeline Lee. Our logo is by Jessica Lilien. Our music is by Imperial. I’m Dean Harris.