Where am I?

A Tradition of Family

Human Environmental Sciences Department Name Changes to Family Consumer Sciences(l-r) Jan Crites, Dr. Cheryl Houston, S. Mary Carol Anth, CSJ, Dr. Allison Edwards

This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Tableaux magazine.

In her book “As Strong as the Granite — Vitality and Vision: Fontbonne at 75,” Sister Jane Hassett wrote that, “The college of the 1930s had a view of society — and the place of women in it — that was rooted in the traditions of its religious founders: a tradition of giving service to the neighbor and of doing all the things of which a woman is capable.”

The world — and the role of women — has changed since the 1930s, but Fontbonne University continues to give and serve, even today. Deeply rooted indeed, one of Fontbonne’s founding academic departments was once known as home economics; it evolved into human environmental sciences in the 1990s, and, as of this summer, it will officially be known as family and consumer sciences (FCS). With the name change comes the addition of two new degree programs: family policy and advocacy and health education and promotion. These developments are cause for celebration. While many of the nation’s FCS programs are shutting their doors, the continuation of Fontbonne’s FCS major and its department, which also includes a major in dietetics, can be attributed to the women who have guarded and guided it throughout the decades.

The past four most recent department chairs insist that the department is what it is today because they each built on the efforts of their predecessors. Sister Mary Carol Anth, CSJ, served as chair from 1966-1991, when Jan Crites took over until 2004. Dr. Cheryl Houston, current professor and director of the dietetics program, held the position from 2004-2012. And Dr. Allison Edwards, associate professor, is the current chair. (Editor's note: In June of 2014, Mary Beth Ohlms, dietetics instructor, was named the fifth chair of the department.)

When Sister Mary Carol became chair, the department had only three full-time faculty members, one of whom retired almost immediately, leaving the new chair and a single colleague to hire new faculty, refocus programs, renovate classrooms, establish offices and generally enliven a department of 30 students, a number that included dietetics majors, a few home economics education majors, and one clothing and textile major. The department had great potential for growth, she said, so she got to work.

“By the time I left in 1991, we were up to around 140-150 students, we had four majors, dietetics had continued to grow, clothing and textiles had become fashion merchandising, a very viable and popular major, home economics education had grown considerably, and we had begun a new major in early childhood,” said Sister Mary Carol, who hired Jan Crites as a faculty member in 1972. When Crites, whose specialty was clothing and textiles, as well as home economics education, took over as chair in 1991, she had a well-established department on her hands.

“We built on a very strong foundation,” Crites said. “We worked on refocusing programs where we needed to and really developing the early childhood and fashion merchandising programs. All of us were very active on the local, state and national level.”

This professional activity is a tradition within the department. Nearly all faculty members have been involved in professional organizations and efforts beyond Fontbonne. And they encourage students to do the same. At varying times, the home economics program and the dietetics program participated in the development of national accreditation for each respective discipline. Fontbonne subsequently became the first private college or university accredited in both areas.  

 “Both Jan and Mary Carol were always visionary in terms of seeing what was best for the students, the programs and the profession,” said Houston, who stepped into the role of chair in 2004. “They taught us all well to never make it our goal to simply meet accreditation standards. We’ve always exceeded accreditation standards.”

Today, the family-focused department offers four undergraduate majors (dietetics, family and consumer sciences and the two new programs), one minor and a certification program, as well as a graduate program in human environmental sciences with concentrations in multidisciplinary health communication studies and child and family studies. (Because of academic restructuring, the fashion merchandising program found a home in the Eckelkamp College of Global Business and Professional Studies, and the early childhood program relocated to the College of Education and Communication Sciences and Disorders.) All of the programs echo the direction of the FCS profession as a whole, emphasizing education, analysis and advocacy, creating professionals who can teach, research, and advocate for and affect policy.

Edwards, the department’s current chair, couldn’t be more thrilled.

“Family has always been an emphasis within our department, but we have now strategically positioned ourselves to make family a central, preeminent focus in a variety of ways. Family is where we started, and family is where we remain.”