Separate But Equal?

Peace College's plans raise legal question of whether colleges can have separate sections for male and female students.

July 25, 2011

When a women's college announces plans to admit men, the norm is for officials to talk about the need to broaden the pool of potential applicants, and for some students and alumnae to react with horror. In those respects, the news out of Peace College on Thursday was typical -- as was the outrage.

But part of Peace College's announcement was quite different from the pattern: the college announced that once it admits men, some courses will remain single sex. The official announcement said that "the new coeducational institution will continue to be student-centered. One way is ... to offer select single-gender courses in targeted disciplines where research shows that women and men learn differently and that each benefit from a single-gender classroom. As a coeducational institution, all classes will be accessible to all students."

Several legal experts on gender discrimination in higher education said that there are significant legal questions about the idea.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars gender-based discrimination at schools and colleges receiving federal funds. Private women's colleges have an exemption from Title IX in their admissions policies, so it is legal for them to admit only women. But Title IX generally has barred single-sex courses except in limited situations such as physical education and chorus classes. Under the second Bush administration, then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings issued regulations that significantly expanded the right of public schools to offer separate courses for male and female students, but those regulations apply to elementary and secondary education, not higher education.

There are plenty of sections of courses that -- depending on the demographics of the institution and the subject matter -- may have overwhelmingly or even entirely male or female enrollments. And if that doesn't result from colleges encouraging such patterns, it is generally not a legal issue.

The last time a single-sex course at a coeducational college drew widespread attention was in the case of the late Mary Daly, a feminist theologian who taught for decades at Boston College and who turned male students away from her classes. When that pattern was challenged by two male would-be students in 1998, Boston College told Daly that she couldn't exclude male students, with officials citing Title IX as the reason that the institution could not let her limit a course to women.

In an interview Friday, Debra M. Townsley, the new president at Peace, said she did not see any legal problems with offering separate sections for men and women in some areas. The faculty would determine where the option would be offered, and there would be separate sections for men and women, plus a coeducational section, so everyone would have access to either a single-sex or combined course.

"All classes are always accessible to all students, but we focus on learning style," she said. While the announcement referred to "single-gender courses," Townsley said that the courses would actually be offered for male learning styles, female learning styles and then mixed learning styles. She also said that if a man made a request to get into a female learning styles course, or vice versa, Peace would not prevent that, but "we'll advertise the courses" as being designed for men and women respectively.

She deflected all questions on which subjects would be taught this way, saying that was a matter for the faculty. She did acknowledge that one reason Peace announced the separate sections was to minimize criticism that the needs of female students might receive less support in a coeducational institution.

Betty Witcher, an associate professor of psychology at Peace who leads the Faculty Senate there, said she did not know which courses the faculty would back for this approach because professors were not consulted about the decision to admit men and to offer some courses in single-gender sections. "Quite honestly, at this point, I know basically what you know," she said. "The faculty were not informed of the decision beforehand."

Witcher said that Townsley, in a brief discussion after the announcement, suggested that subjects such as "women's literature and things like that" would be appropriate for separate sections, while also noting research that men and women learn mathematics in different ways. Witcher said, however, that she is not familiar with this research.

"There have been no faculty discussions of anything," she said. "This is all totally uncharted territory."

Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center, said that the Peace College plan "raises some serious flags" about its legality. "I can't think of another college that is doing something similar."

She noted several reasons that Peace could have difficulty. Even in the K-12 sector where single-sex programs have been endorsed in some circumstances by the Education Department, schools have been required to show research based on a particular school population that led to the decision, based on actual student performance. "You can't justify single-sex after the fact," she said. "You can't justify it based on pseudoscience."

As a women's college, Peace by definition can't have evidence on how its courses are experienced by male and female students. (Indeed, while not all women's colleges endorse the argument about different learning styles, those that embrace that line of thinking tend to do so to promote women's colleges, not a decision to admit men.)

Further, Graves said that there are dangerous stereotypes behind announcing -- especially without having done any research in advance -- that some courses may benefit from men's and women's learning style sections. "The problem is at the root of the description. The presumption that there is one male learning style and one female learning style is a stereotype in itself that has been disproven," she said. "There is more variance among women than there is between men and women. This is not something that can just be done automatically."

Erin Buzuvis, a Title IX expert who is a professor of law at Western New England University and co-founder of the Title IX Blog, said she doubted a non-women's college could offer single-sex courses in academic subjects.

"I think Peace College would have a hard time defending that position," she said. "If it no longer qualifies for the exemption from Title IX for colleges with a single-sex history and tradition, then it is subject to the general prohibition against sex discrimination in all of its programs, including classes. The law makes some exception for courses in physical education, human sexuality, and choruses, but not core courses."

Two other experts on higher education law -- both of whom said they did not want to be quoted by name, as they don't like to suggest that a college may be violating the law -- said that they could not think of a college with a similar program to the one Peace is talking about creating, and that they had serious doubts about its compliance with Title IX.

As to the reasons for admitting men, Townsley noted research that very few female high school students want to attend a women's college. Currently the college has about 600 students in its full-time women's program (a small part-time evening program already has some male students). With male students, Townsley said, the college could grow to 1,000 students and offer a better education for the male and female students enrolled.

Students and alumnae have been organizing online, expressing anger, planning protests and talking about the potential for lawsuits. If Peace College follows the pattern of most women's colleges that have announced plans to admit men, however, those efforts will not succeed. Still, about 200 alumnae protested on the campus Sunday. Several of the online posts have noted the case of Mills College, where a sustained student protest in 1990 with the theme "better dead than coed" led officials to abandon a plan to admit men. The college remains a women's institution today.


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