Taking Care of Their Own

For Saint John's University, an-all male Catholic college, the declining participation of men in college is a particular source of concern.

August 26, 2008

For many colleges, dwindling male enrollment has become a source of some concern. But at Saint John’s University, recruiting men is a matter of survival.

Saint John’s, an all-male Roman Catholic university in Collegeville, Minn., has been in the business of recruiting men since it was founded by Benedictines in the mid 1800s. So as some colleges across the country report declines in male enrollment, it is perhaps of little surprise that Saint John’s faculty members and administrators have stepped up to grapple with what some view as growing problem in higher education.

“We see it as a crisis, really, the lack of involvement of men,” said Gar Kellom, executive director of the Center for Men's Leadership and Service at Saint John’s. “We’ve looked at all the data and said somebody’s got to do something.”

Kellom calls the enrollment dips at some colleges part of a broader picture of disengagement among males, who are less likely to participate in programs like study abroad while in college, and who are also less likely -- throughout their lives -- to go to the doctor or volunteer.

To address these concerns, Saint John’s has created a task force to look at male enrollment issues, and has been collecting data among the university's students to find out what makes men tick. The university also helps organize annual conferences for men's colleges, placing the onus on all-male institutions to confront issues like enrollment decline.

“The men’s colleges never even talked to each other [before this],” Kellom said.

There is considerable debate within academe about whether enrollment declines are an issue for all males or just select socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Current trend lines, however, have been a source of concern for some who track and study the data.

Male students made up 52 percent of the U.S. undergraduate population in 1976, but that figure dropped to 43 percent by 2004, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The difference between male and female participation was found to be particularly stark among black students, where women outnumbered men in college enrollments by 29 percentage points in 2004.

Strategies Emerge for Male Recruitment

While Saint John’s is among a handful of all-male colleges in the U.S., it differs considerably from its counterparts. Saint John’s has a partnership with the College of Saint Benedict, a women’s college whose students attend classes and participate in extracurricular activities with the men of Saint John’s. While the residence halls at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict aren’t mixed sex, nearly every other part of life on the two campuses is coeducational.

Saint John’s and Saint Benedict also share an admissions office, and filling the seats at Saint John’s has posed a greater challenge for nearly the last decade. For every year between 1997 and 2007, Saint Benedict’s enrollment exceeded that of Saint John’s by somewhere between 1 and 3 percent. In 2004 and 2005, enrollment at Saint John's dropped slightly, but it's now back on the upswing.

With a total enrollment of about 4,000 between the two colleges, admissions officials say they have had to work to hold down enrollment at Saint Benedict -- where they receive more applications -- while being more proactive in recruiting men to Saint John's.

Before the late 1990s, there was little discussion at Saint John’s about targeting men differently. But as a small -- but persistent -- gap between the two institutions' enrollments became clear, Saint John’s launched its “Play the Game” campaign. The campaign touts that the partnered colleges – situated on an idyllic 3,200-acre stretch of woods, lakes, and prairie -- are ideal for skiing, rowing, fishing, running

“At least as an intro or as a way to capture students’ attention, we really have leveraged athletics,” said Tom Voller-Berdan, director of admissions at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict.

Recently published brochures feature pictures of students playing basketball or ice fishing.

But the emphasis on sports and recreation still has broad appeal for women, who have continued to apply to Saint Benedict in larger numbers despite the targeted recruitment of men, Voller-Berdan said.

“It really turns out that any male recruitment initiative really works better for women,” he said. “Everything works for women.”

Saint John’s successful football team, which is the winningest Division III program in history, is also a potential draw for students. To capitalize on the team's successes, the university launched a program called “Saturdays at Saint John’s” in the late 1990s, bringing interested students on campus to meet with admissions coordinators in the morning, and encouraging them to stick around for a football game later in the day.

In its recruitment of men, Saint John’s focuses very little on the fact that residence halls are all-male. Voller-Berdan acknowledges that there’s “not a lot of market for a men’s college out there,” but notes that students typically cite the single-sex dorms as a positive when they graduate.

“It’s in some ways sort of the largest fraternity in the world,” he said. “It’s 2,000 guys hanging out in their boxer shorts at 1 o’clock.”

Playing up Gender Roles, Only to Break Them Down

It may seem a bit perplexing that Saint John’s lures male students to campus by appealing to their perceived machismo and love of football, only to challenge those stereotypes during the course of students’ academic careers. The Center for Men's Leadership and Service, which reaches about 2,000 students each year through activities, is designed in part to break down students’ traditional notions of masculinity.

Michael Kimmel, a leading gender scholar and professor of sociology at Sate University of New York at Stony Brook, said he sees no conflict between Saint John’s recruitment methods and its broader goals of encouraging men to explore masculinity as a social construct.

“You’ve got to minister to them where they are, and not where you want them to be,” said Kimmel, author of the new book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.

Furthermore, it just makes sense to appeal to men’s interests if you’re trying to recruit them, Kimmel said.

“When the going gets tough, the administration builds another gym,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing; it’s a way to reach guys.”

As head of the men’s center, Kellom has also tried to get some of the toughest men on campus to participate in the center’s activities. Kellom calls these men “pied pipers,” because they can effectively generate a following of men who might otherwise be leery of exploring gender issues.

Brett Saladin, a tight end on Saint John’s football team, has emerged as one of Kellom’s pied pipers. When Saladin was sidelined with an injury two seasons ago, he successfully campaigned to become the “Men’s Issues Representative” in the university’s Student Senate. That naturally led to more involvement with the men’s center on campus, including organizing an all-male trip to Trinidad, where students worked with orphans who had HIV.

The mostly unspoken aim of men’s center trips is to encourage male students to get involved in volunteering, something men don’t do in the same numbers as women. There is also the hope that, surrounded by children facing hardships, the men will hone their parental instincts, and also develop greater sensitivity. These goals, however, were seldom mentioned by Saladin when he tried to recruit his friends on a recent trip. He just told them it would be cool to go to Trinidad

“We’re not going to sit there and say, ‘Hey, come be a man’ or ‘Hey, do you want to know what a man is? Come with us.’ It’s not that direct,” Saladin said. “It’s more or less the experience. If we can get them to go [on the trip], the experience they will have will show -- not just them, but all of us -- what it really means to be a man.”

Exploring Gender in a Catholic College

While it’s not a requirement that students at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict be Catholic, 70 percent of them are. And Catholicism is undeniably interwoven into the experience on campus, where monks and nuns live in residence halls alongside students.

Catholicism surely looms large on campus, but the teachings of the Church do not inhibit a thoughtful and candid exploration of gender roles, according to Ozzie Mayers, a professor of English and gender education and development at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict.

The Church’s doctrines on abortion, homosexuality and women in the priesthood, for instance, do not prohibit open dialogue about those issues within the context of a gender studies course, Mayers said.

“We are paying particular attention to those topics because they are challenging topics for institutions that are based in the Catholic tradition,” he said.

“Now there might be other religious institutions where [discussion] is more filtered [by Church doctrine], let’s say,” he added. “Here, there is a tradition of really being welcoming to a variety of points of view. Now, one of those points of view is always clearly the Catholic Church’s point of view. It’s not that it is ignored, for certain.”

Patrick Sitzer, a Saint John’s student who participates in a spirituality group at the men's center, says he hasn’t seen the role of religion at the university deter any activities in the men's center. Sitzer is a practicing Catholic, but he says he’s been joined by friends in the spirituality group who “could care less” about the Church.

Sitzer also notes that the university’s ties to the monastery offer a college experience that’s truly unique: “You’ll be eating dinner at night, and there will be monks in the cafeteria eating ice cream cones.”


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