It’s a well-known fact that there’s a severe gender imbalance in undergraduate college populations: about 57 percent of undergrads these days are female and only 43 percent male, the culmination of a trend over the past few decades in which significantly fewer young men than young women either graduate from high school or enroll in college. It’s also a well-known fact—at least among college admissions officers—that many private institutions have tried to close the gender gap by quietly relaxing admissions standards for male applicants, essentially practicing affirmative action for young men. What they’re doing is perfectly legal, even under Title IX, the 1972 federal law that bans sex discrimination by institutions of higher learning receiving federal funds. Title IX contains an exemption that specifically allows private colleges that aren’t professional or technical institutions to prefer one sex over the other in undergraduate admissions. Militant feminists and principled opponents of affirmative action might complain about the discrimination against women that Title IX permits, but for many second- and third-tier liberal arts colleges lacking male educational magnets such as engineering and business programs, the exemption may be a lifesaver, preventing those smaller and less prestigious schools from turning into de facto women’s colleges that few young people of either sex might want to attend.
Now, however, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has decided to turn over this rock carefully set in place by admissions committees. The commission launched an investigation last fall into the extent of male preferences in admissions decisions at 19 various institutions of higher learning. These include public universities (where such preferences are illegal under Title IX); elite private institutions such as Georgetown and Johns Hopkins; smaller liberal arts schools (Gettysburg College, with 2,600 undergraduates, is on the list); religious schools (the Jesuit-run University of Richmond and Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.); and historically black Virginia Union University, also in Richmond. On May 14 the commission’s general counsel, David P. Blackwood, announced that four of the 19 schools–Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Gettysburg, and Messiah—had raised legal issues concerning compliance with the commission’s subpoenas, and that Virginia Union, while responding politely, had not complied in any way. Blackwood said that the commission might have to ask the Justice Department for help in obtaining admissions data from Virginia Union.
The commission’s investigation has triggered a variety of ideological conflicts and created some unusual ideological allies—and it may ultimately provide a forum for rethinking Title IX itself. Critics charge that the U.S. Education Department has interpreted the 1972 law so as to make it illegal for colleges to attract males by more palatable means such as men’s sports teams, forcing them to resort to outright sex discrimination in admissions.
On one side of the current conflict are the opponents of affirmative action for any group, whether based on sex, ethnicity, or religion. Typically such opponents compare efforts to limit the number of women in a college population to the quotas for Jews that once prevailed in the Ivy League and the de facto quotas disfavoring high-achieving Asians that have typically arisen as a consequence of “diversity” measures favoring blacks and Hispanics. Squarely in the anti-affirmative-action camp is the instigator of the Civil Rights Commission’s admissions probe, Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego appointed to the commission by the Senate in 2007 and one of the backers of Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that outlawed racial and other preferences by public institutions in California. “The exemption in Title IX was created to protect single-sex schools—to allow men’s schools to remain men’s schools and women’s schools to remain women’s schools,” Heriot said in a telephone interview. “The admissions policies of coeducational schools weren’t covered.”
On the other side is a group that might be called “biological realists,” a group that undoubtedly includes many admissions officers and alumni fundraisers. Their argument is simple: Call it sexist, or call it simply hormonal, but most young people want to attend a co-educational school where the number of students of each sex is roughly equal. There are almost no all-men’s colleges left in the United States, and only around 50 all-women’s colleges (two longtime holdouts, Hood in Maryland and Randolph-Macon in Virginia, went fully co-educational in 2003 and 2007 respectively, and even the most academically prestigious of the survivors, such as Bryn Mawr and Mt. Holyoke, draw a significant percentage of their student bodies from socially conservative populations in the Mideast and East Asia where single-sex education is the norm).
Furthermore, once any institution is perceived as predominantly female, whether a profession such as K-12 teaching or a college with a severe female-to-male gender imbalance, it loses prestige. Men shy away and eventually so do the most talented women, who want to be where the high-status men are. If high-school seniors won’t apply to a college because they don’t like the sex mix, the college drops both in perceived selectivity—the U.S. News rankings where the applications-to-acceptances ratio is paramount—and actual selectivity as it scrambles to fill seats with less able students. It’s a rule of thumb that the less academic prestige a college has, the more likely it is to suffer from gender imbalance among both applicants and those who choose to attend (there’s no gender imbalance at Harvard or the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, for example). At community colleges that take all comers, for example, 62 percent of students are female, and the for-profit open-admissions University of Phoenix boasts on its website that it has a 67 percent female student body. “The lower the pecking order, the more women,” said Heriot.
It’s a potential death spiral of which most college administrators and governing boards are well aware. In 2005 trustees at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill were distressed to discover that the entering freshman class was 58 percent female. Some trustees suggested that the university create some sort of affirmative action for men, an act that would have violated the law.
There’s a third interest group in the mix, the hard-line feminists who insist either that males as historical oppressors should never qualify for admissions preferences, or that men’s general lack of interest in institutions and activities that are “too female” is not a biological but a cultural phenomenon that can be reversed by role-modeling, mentoring, and sensitivity sessions. In a forum this spring for Education Next Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and principal author of the American Association of University Women’s 1992 report “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” argued that male high school graduation rates and male college enrollments would increase if there were a national campaign to encourage fathers to read to their children and more boys in the K-12 system had access to “men who hold other than traditionally male jobs.”
On the issue of gender preferences in admissions, the feminists (who tend to favor affirmative action in other contexts) and the affirmative-action opponents have become strange-bedfellows. In a 2006 op-ed for the New York Times, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio, described her admissions committee’s struggles to attain something approaching an even gender balance in Kenyon’s incoming freshman class, for which 55 percent of applicants were female. Britz candidly admitted that when it came to marginal candidates (Kenyon, a highly ranked liberal arts college, turns down two applicants for every one it admits), young men were far more likely to get a pass and a fat envelope than young women with similar grades, SAT scores, and high-school achievements. “Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.”
The feminist reaction to Britz’s op-ed was predictably furious. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the Nation, called the Kenyon policy “scandalous” and said in an interview, “Affirmative action is intended to remedy past discrimination. There is no past discrimination against white males.” Feminists have been similarly unsympathetic to the plight of Virginia Union in its investigation by the Civil Rights Commission. Historically black colleges face a particularly difficult plight with respect to gender imbalances because the African-American undergraduate population is 59 percent female. The comments to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Justice Department’s possible involvement with the commission’s investigation included such remarks as “Men are *not* a group that is subject to affirmative action legislation” and “Remember black men got to vote 50 years before women of any color.”
The Civil Rights commission has the power to make only recommendations, not rules, and Heriot would not say whether it would consider recommending statutory changes to the Title IX admissions exemption that would, say, apply it only to historically single-sex schools. “The first step is getting the records from these schools and finding out whether they’re giving preferential treatment to men,” she said. Heriot did say that the commission might suggest steps that colleges could take to attract more male applicants and thus reduce overtly gender-preferential admissions.
That may be tricky, however, because one obvious strategy for luring more men to a campus would be to offer more sports programs that appeal to them (men seem to gravitate toward competitive, team-based athletics). That, however, would get the college into trouble with the Education Department for enforcing the Title IX rules that, practically speaking, require spending on athletics that reflects the campus male-female student population ratio, whether or not female students actually want the sports offered. Thanks in part to the gender imbalance, colleges have been cutting, not adding, men’s sports in order to comply with the department’s interpretation of Title IX. The Civil Rights Commission recently recommended a modification to those rules that would allow colleges to survey their students to determine male and female interest in athletic programs and then spend accordingly, but the Obama administration’s Education Department promptly rejected that proposal, foreclosing what could have been a way for colleges to increase their male student numbers without resorting to preferences.
The Education Department’s swift rejection of the commission’s recommendation reflected today’s political realities in matters of gender policy. The Civil Rights Commission, now far more conservative than the Obama administration thanks to Bush’s appointments, is likely to wield little influence over administration policy. The feminists who form an influential element of Obama’s Democratic Party base are undoubtedly perfectly willing to align themselves with Heriot and other conservative opponents of affirmative action to denounce male preferences in college admissions. Nonetheless, wedded to their ideological view of females as a perpetual victim group, feminists are unlikely to approve of any non-preference-based effort to attract male students to college campuses. The Education Department’s prompt rejection of the commission’s moderate and realistic proposal to allow colleges to gauge their female students’ interest in athletics before targeting 57 percent of their sports budgets to women’s teams was a sign of this presidential administration’s enslavement to a position that the interests, needs, and desires of young men aren’t worthy of even minimal consideration, let alone legal recognition.
It is not hard to sympathize with Heriot and other principled opponents of affirmative action on the Civil Rights Commission (the commission’s scholarly vice-chairman, Abigail Thernstrom, comes to mind). They have spent more than a decade arguing that racial and ethnic preferences and quotas not only violate the letter and spirit of civil-rights laws that explicitly call for equal treatment but may actually harm members of the groups that supposedly benefit from preferred treatment but know full well that they are actually objects of condescension. Why, affirmative-action opponents may well ask, should gender be treated any differently from race, given that feminists themselves insist that women are societal victims, too, and demand the same sorts of special concessions that some racial and ethnic minorities have received?
It ought to be possible to argue that gender is different from race or ethnicity as a human category, the latter being a product of genetic drift, cultural isolation and religious differences, and the former an essential element in every human being’s identity. Sexual dimorphism, with the very real physical and psychological differences between the sexes that it entails, isn’t a cultural construct but the very machine of human reproduction and the passing on of human civilization: mating, the making of families, and the raising of children, which is arguably the most important of all human activities. The desire of many high school seniors to spend four years of their young adulthood in a setting like that in real life where neither sex outnumbers the other—and their willingness to vote with their feet if the setting proves otherwise—is different in kind from the discomfort that some might feel where there are “too many” Jews or blacks or Asians. Many college administrators are well aware of this and have quietly adjusted their admissions policies accordingly. And it’s hard to see what’s wrong with that, especially when they’re dealing with borderline applicants who can’t be said to qualify for the freshman class strictly on their merits.
The Civil Rights Commission’s investigation of male preferences in college admissions policies may not yield any regulatory or policy changes, given the ideological predilections of the current administration, but it is likely to accomplish one thing: a shedding of light on the biological and psychological realities of relations between the sexes that have, in the admissions process so far defied both the dogma of the feminists and the best intentions of the principled opponents of affirmative action.
This is a corrected version of the original text, which incorrectly said that Gail Heriot was appointed to the Civil Rights Commission by George .W. Bush and inaccurately stated that Kenyon turns down three applicants for every two it admits. The college turns down two applicants for every one it admits.