Separate But Equal?

A Texas college offers an all-male public speaking course, raising questions about discrimination and constitutionality.

September 30, 2008

Where’s the line between helping men and discriminating against women? A community college in Texas may soon find out.

Administrators at Northeast Lakeview College, a recently founded institution located outside of San Antonio, are defending a decision to bar women from a public speaking course launched in 2007. The male-only course, “Introduction to Speech Communication,” is offered in coeducational sections as well, which college officials say should satisfy federal discrimination laws.

“We’re not denying anyone access to a speech class,” said Eric Reno, president of Northeast Lakeview College. “That’s not the intent of it.”

The class is taught by Archie Wortham, an assistant professor of speech who says he is particularly concerned about the lack of male participation in all levels of education. Wortham argues that his all-male class helps address differences in learning styles between men and women, and may ultimately help Northeast Lakeview retain and graduate more male students.

Wortham said he developed the class while he was teaching at Palo Alto College, and introduced the course with the blessing of administrators at Northeast Lakeview. “I firmly believe what I am doing is right,” Wortham said.

“I’m an educator, and I don’t want to get wrapped around political correctness,” he added.

Wortham and Reno said that lawyers for the Alamo Community College District, which includes Northeast Lakevie and Palo Alto, had determined that the course passed legal muster. District officials, however, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

The college has received no complaints from students about the course, according to Northeast Lakeview officials.

Legal Questions Raised

Legal experts interviewed for this article said there are serious and legitimate questions about whether a single-sex course at a public college is legal. Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, said the course could surely be challenged as a potential violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was used in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case. The course could also face challenges under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that explicitly prohibits sexual discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.

“You have both Title IX issues and also Fourteenth Amendment issues since it’s a public college,” Clegg said. “If this were a racially exclusive course, I would say that it’s cut and dry that you could not do this.”

“There would certainly be a problem if something were being offered to men that was not being offered to women at all,” he added. “The fact that it is being offered to women in an additional course helps, but it doesn’t necessarily save the program. The very process of categorizing and discriminating raises problems and the classes may not be equal.”

In defense of the program, college officials note that another section of the same course is not only offered -- but offered at the same time.

“The issue is it’s a speech class, and we’ve always scheduled a speech class at the same time. People can get their speech class requirement,” Reno said Monday, reiterating comments he’d made to the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the course.

But Reno’s contention that the co-ed options have “always” been available at the “same time” isn’t true. The male-only course has only been offered at Northeast Lakeview twice, and in the most recent case there was not another coeducational section of it offered on the campus during the same time slot, according to the college’s spring schedule for 2008.

Asked about the discrepancy between his statements and the class schedule, Reno initially theorized that the course must have been offered in the same time slot but lacked sufficient student interest. That theory, however, turned out not to be true, either, Reno's staff acknowledged.

“I don’t see it as a big issue,” Reno said. “I think if we do it again we’ll make sure [to offer] the same section at the same time, but I didn’t think anyone was denied access to a speech course.”

Northeast Lakeview, which has founded in 2007, is still seeking accreditation. It has two sister campuses, however, that are accredited. Those institutions, Saint Philip's College and San Antonio College, did offer a comparable coeducational course on their campuses at the same time the male-only class was held, according to Wortham.

Helping Males is Goal, Officials Say

The seminal test of male-only education at the college level came in 1996 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against of the Virginia Military Institute, an all-male military college in Lexington, Va. In that ruling, the court recognized that a government entity must establish an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for excluding participation based on gender. Furthermore, the institution “must show that that the discriminatory means employed are substantially related to the achievement of those objectives."

Northeast Lakeview officials might have a difficult time illustrating an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for a male-only course. While there may be a problem with male participation and achievement at Northeast Lakeview, the college has little data to show it. The college hasn’t even been in existence long enough to establish graduation rates.

There are, however, other data that indicate a pressing problem nationally. Male participation in undergraduate education dropped from 52 percent to 43 percent between 1976 and 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At Northeast Lakeview, the male to female ratio on campus is now about 40 percent to 60 percent, according to college officials.

While the college has no graduation rate data of its own, there are district-level data that show lower two-year graduation rates for males. For full-time students entering in 2002, 14 percent of white males graduated in four years, compared with 22 percent of females, according to the Alamo Community College District. For Hispanic males, the graduation rate was 19 percent, compared with 39 percent for females. For black male and female students, both had graduation rates below 3 percent.

As for whether offering a single section of an all-male class on campus is “substantially related” to the goal of achieving greater male participation and success in higher education, Reno said there isn’t yet any way to effectively demonstrate that the class is addressing the problem.

“How do you prove it before you do it? It’s a chicken and egg thing,” he said.

There were nine students enrolled in the single-sex public speaking class in spring of 2007, and eight completed the course, according to Wortham. In the spring of 2008, 18 students enrolled and 17 finished, he said.

No Plan to Discontinue Course

Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center, said the Supreme Court has set a rather high bar for justifying programs that refuse people based on gender.

“You have to have some kind of reliable evidence that single sex programs are the effective way to achieve your goal, and if you don’t, your program may not be legal,” she said.

As for Title IX, the U.S. Department of Education has, in recent years, produced regulations that suggest the law allows for some single-sex programs in secondary and elementary schools. The department, however, has not introduced similar regulations for higher education, and the regulations related to K-12 have been challenged as unconstitutional.

As of Monday, Northeast Lakeview still had plans to offer the male-only public speaking class in the future. Reno said he had spoken with Chancellor Bruce Leslie Monday, and that Leslie had not suggested that the college drop the class.

“He’s still trying to figure out what the issue is also,” Reno said. “I think we all go back to who did we deny access to?”

Reno calls the male-only class an innovative tool for addressing a real problem, but he says he’s not surprised that it’s raised some eyebrows.

“I’m getting used to the death of common sense,” he said.


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