OUTstanding Virginians 2010

Karen DePauw

Leading Educator

Personally, Professor Karen DePauw believes that “no one should be forced to be out; one should live his/her own life fully, with integrity and with honesty.” But history has a way of thrusting certain individuals out into the spotlight at moments which severely test their integrity and personal courage. Such a moment came in 2002 after DePauw and her partner, Shelli Fowler, had both been hired by Virginia Tech. When an email was secretly sent to selected members of the university’s Board of Visitors, Shelli’s teaching contract in the English department was suddenly and without convincing explanation rescinded. In response the couple might have taken the easy way out and remained at Washington State University where both were faculty members. But, as Karen writes, “the moment that I heard that Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors had approved my contract but cancelled Shelli’s, I knew that we needed to come to Virginia Tech. Both of us fought for social justice issues for all of our professional lives and we needed to continue to step up.” As a result of her refusal to back down in the face of the battle she saw coming, Karen for the next 12 months became the focus for a state-wide and nation-wide struggle to affirm the academy’s right to hire and protect LGBT couples from discrimination based on sexual orientation.


Up until this moment, Karen had concentrated on teaching and pursuing scholarly concerns. After obtaining her Ph.D. in Kinesiology and Physical Education from Texas Woman’s University, she had developed expertise in the fields of adapted physical activity, disability sport and disability studies. Over the years she published 75+ journal articles and chapters of books and presented more than 150 lectures around the world. In recognition of her scholarly contributions, she was elected in 1997 as a member of the American Academy for Kinesiology and Physical Education. Moreover, since 1984 she has worked extensively with the United States Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee and the Olympic and Paralympic Congresses. It was hardly surprising, then, that Virginia Tech selected her to become its Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education.


But choosing to accept this position at Virginia Tech and move with her partner into the year-long controversy which followed the cancellation of Shelli’s contract required not only personal courage but a belief that others could be persuaded to join her fight against discrimination in hiring based upon sexual orientation. Encouragingly, that collective support soon began to rally around Karen and her partner. First, it came from concerned faculty who circulated a petition requesting that the Board of Visitors reconsider its cancellation of Shelli’s contract. Then, it grew to include a group calling itself “Justice for Tech” which initiated a nation-wide letter-writing campaign on the couple’s behalf. Such collective activism even led to a protest rally at the November, 2002 meeting of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors. And it was provoking editorial responses from Virginia’s newspapers including the Roanoke Times which argued that Virginia Tech’s decision suggested it was “imposing an official morality” on the school which flew in the face of “tolerance, academic freedom and future (recruitment) at Tech.” The widely admired Chronicle of Higher Education also joined the battle to protest the way Tech had undermined academic freedom. By May, 2003 the university responded positively to their mistake by reinstating their original affirmative action policies. Finally, after Shelli was offered a new permanent contract to teach at the university, the leadership of Tech’s Board of Visitors proved to be following new leadership which was committed to diversity and inclusivity in its hiring practices. Clearly, Karen and Shelli had stood up to “Old” Virginia and won.


When asked recently “What is your proudest achievement?” Karen does not talk about her own courageous role in standing up to bigotry. Instead, true to her emphasis upon community activism and reaching out to straight allies, she points to the recent controversy caused by Attorney General Cuccinelli’s directive arguing invalid those parts of Virginia’s affirmative action code regarding sexual orientation. As she puts it, “The most exciting and pleasing moment for me occurred in the last weeks. Specifically I am referring to the immediate response and outrage at the Virginia Attorney General’s letter to universities regarding sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy. It took less than a few hours for the first reports, responses and rallies to occur and less than a week for the Governor to issue his executive directive #1 about non-discrimination in Virginia.” As Karen correctly concludes, “A large number of individuals, associations, universities and businesses (LGBT and allies) stood together to voice their commitment to social justice, equality for all and inclusion. In 2002, the numbers were fewer and the fight took longer. I see the collective achievement of many in Virginia (EV as one of the primary players) as a sign of significant progress for the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Although Karen challenges herself to live by Gandhi’s motto to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” she continues to expect that change to come about not merely from the courage of individuals like herself but from courage in the larger community as well as from civic activism.