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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Career Coach: More on Gender Balance

The undergraduate institution I attended went co-ed the year I matriculated. It had previously been an all-women’s college, the sister school to a nearby men’s university that began admitting women the same year.

November 15, 2009

The undergraduate institution I attended went co-ed the year I matriculated. It had previously been an all-women’s college, the sister school to a nearby men’s university that began admitting women the same year.

By the time I graduated, there were about thirty men among a student body of 2500. Some of these guys were stellar — bright, committed, enlightened, and fun to be around. Most were not. A number were unprepared for the academic and social challenges of college; a few bragged that they had transferred because “with all these chicks around it should be a piece of cake to get laid.” It was clear to us that there was a double admissions standard. We joked that the entrance exam for men consisted of the ability to sign one’s name, but we didn’t find it funny, really.

There was one men’s dormitory. It was a beautiful old house — one of several on campus; most were reserved for honors students or those with special interests. I lived in one that was dedicated to French-speaking students. It was a privilege to live there, among well cared for antique furnishings, and we were constantly reminded that the privilege could be revoked for bad grades or bad behavior. The men, however, lived under no such strictures. After two years the furniture in their parlor had to be completely replaced, with sturdy vinyl-covered couches and chairs and utilitarian lamps, because the antiques had been wrecked, some in drunken parties and others through everyday abuse such as cigarette burns and carved initials. When they partied we could hear them clear across campus. And it was sometimes hard to maintain an atmosphere of respect in the classroom with some guy blathering on about a topic he clearly knew next to nothing about.

Again, this wasn’t everyone. Idiocy wasn’t a requirement for admission if you were a male — it just wasn’t a dealbreaker. The “good” men were embarrassed by the others, and worked to dissociate from them. But the others dominated.

And the question arose, again and again, Why are they doing this to us? When our “brother” college agreed, grudgingly from what we understood, to begin admitting women, they didn’t lower their admission standards. The women there kept up with their classes at least as well as the men did, despite stories of harassment and shunning. But the quality of our classroom discussions was degraded, and our college’s academic reputation was somewhat tarnished.

Several years after I graduated, my alma mater moved to change its name from a woman’s name to two last names (officially gender neutral, but the names were famous enough so that their (white) male connotations were clear) “to reflect the changing demographics of the student body,” meaning that men weren’t applying in sufficient numbers because of the girl’s name. Alumnae back to the aughts exploded. Why is it acceptable for women to attend schools named after men, we demanded, but not vice versa? Why do they always have to be catered to?

My school backed down — and began focusing for the first time on competitive, rather than recreational, athletics. The number of men on campus increased. The school itself is now much larger than it was in my day (“bloated,” according to one of my old professors). Academics are okay, from what I understand, though the presence of “student-athletes” on campus has shifted interest away from the arts and humanities, the college’s original strength.

And I’m still asking the question: Why? I appreciate Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur’s explanation (in the comments section of last week’s column) that admissions departments believe that “once an elite college tips too far towards a female majority, the best female applicants will no longer consider the school because they feel there will be too much competition for dates.”

But is this really the case? Are women, even today, willing to compromise their education for dates—and are fellow students the only fish in the pool? Men in all-male schools (think the Citadel) seem to want to keep it that way, no matter how qualified female applicants are. Do they worry about getting dates?

What is going on here?


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