An Investigation Abandoned

March 16, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, over the objections of several of its members, has suspended an inquiry into the extent to which liberal arts colleges discriminate against female applicants to try to minimize gender imbalances in the student body.

The investigation of 19 colleges, begun in 2009, was undertaken based on reports that many private liberal arts colleges -- struggling for parity between male and female students -- dig more deeply into their male applicant pools than they do for women, in ways that are unfair to women.

But advocates for women believed -- and some backers of the investigation conceded -- that a strong undercurrent of the inquiry related to athletics, with some commissioners arguing that liberal arts colleges could be adding sports teams for men (rather than using admissions preferences) if it were not for the Education Department's policies on Title IX in athletics. The commission, whose members are appointed by the president and Congressional leaders and whose powers are mostly advisory, has in recent years been sharply divided over issues involving affirmative action and gender equity.

As first reported by Richard Whitmire's Why Boys Fail blog for Education Week, Christopher Byrnes, the commission's acting assistant staff director for civil rights evaluation, gave the panel's members an update on the admissions project at its meeting last Friday. He described three colleges as "holdout[s]" that had failed to provide the requested data (on academic credentials of applicants by gender, among other things) or to do so in the format requested by the panel, and gently rebutted assertions by Dina Titus -- a commissioner, professor of government at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and former Democratic member of Congress -- that the data collected to date were of questionable quality.

"I would say that at this point, having heard that report and concerns with the data, we don't want to put out something based on faulty or incomplete data," Titus said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided by the commission. "I would just move that we suspend this data and move forward with other things."

Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor who had initiated the investigation, said that ending the inquiry because of concerns about data would be a "travesty."

"We always have data collection problems," Heriot said. "There are always difficulties in getting facts. And if this one is canceled when it is almost done on that basis, then we had better cancel every project we are ever going to do and might as well just go home."

Four of the commission's seven members supported Titus's motion to kill the study, and the same four voted against a subsequent motion by Todd Gaziano, a senior fellow in legal studies at the Heritage Foundation, to make the collected data public.

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