When the Michigan State University Student Union's current building opened in 1925, it featured one lounge each for men and for women, and a billiards room for male students only. Over the years, the spaces restricted to male students were eliminated. Until this year, the student union had a women's lounge. The student union's history says that "today’s MSU men grouse a bit about not having a men’s lounge, since the women’s lounge is still part of the union."
That lounge is now being eliminated and only coeducational places will remain (except for bathrooms). The change was announced after (but decided before) a male professor at the University of Michigan at Flint complained to state officials about the women-only lounge. Michigan State officials said that they do see problems with maintaining the lounge, given the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that colleges receiving federal funds not discriminate on the basis of gender.
As word has spread about the closing of the women's lounge, other women on campus have asked why the university also is moving its Women's Resource Center, which promotes gender equity on campus and has been freestanding, to become part of a new WorkLife Office at the university. An announcement on the resource center's website says that the functions of the center will continue, and that its leaders look forward to the new arrangement with "optimism and dedication."
Many women, however, see the elimination of the women's lounge and the change in status of the resource center as steps backward.
Advocates for the women's lounge say there are relatively few places on the main campus where women can study in peace, without male students talking to them and sometimes harassing them.
"One of the unique and cherished places for women at Michigan State University was the women's lounge, located in the MSU Student Union. It was a safe and quiet place for women on campus to take refuge and study in peace. In recent events, MSU administration has shut down the only women's lounge on campus, making it coed even though there is a coed lounge that is over twice the size of the women's lounge on the same floor," says a petition signed by more than 5,000 people.
A number of those who signed the petition wrote that the women's lounge was needed because women are harassed in spaces on campus that are open to men. "I myself have specifically used the women's study lounge [after] initially going to the coed area to study, but then was harassed by a male student especially late in the evening, which continued even once I told him that I couldn't talk and had to get my work done," wrote one woman who signed the petition.
Another woman wrote: "Once I was sitting studying in the main union lounge and some girls approached me warning me and explaining there was a man that kept coming up to them and making crude comments while they were trying to study. Long story short the police were called and the man had to be forcibly escorted from the union. The women's study lounge gives women a safe place to study and not have to worry about men coming up to them and harassing them. I think if this room were to be shut down it would be horrible."
Wrote another: "When I went to Michigan State I accidentally fell asleep at a table in a coed lounge, and woke up to a man I didn't know caressing my thigh. The women's lounge was one of the few places I felt safe on campus after that. Please keep it."
What the Law Says
Mark J. Perry is the professor who filed a complaint about the women's lounge. He is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan at Flint.
While he filed complaints this year, he first wrote about the issue on his blog in 2013. He maintains that he's simply trying to focus attention on the need to enforce Title IX fairly. He wrote recently of the backlash he has received in emails and on social media.
"The vitriol, hatred and hostility directed towards me by email, voicemail and on Twitter have been disturbing and disappointing, more than I have ever experienced in my life -- much of it couldn’t be printed here due to the offensive content, but 'You’re a piece of human garbage Perry and I hope something happens to your daughters, etc.,' gives you an idea of some of the comments that I’ve received by voicemail this week (some have been forwarded to UM Flint’s campus police)," Perry wrote.
"The hatred (see more examples below) is also much more than I ever expected from simply shedding light on a public university that apparently had already made a decision earlier this year (before I filed my complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in June) to bring its campus into compliance with Title IX and other civil rights laws (and its own stated nondiscrimination policy) by opening a public space in the student union to all students starting this fall."
A Michigan State spokesman said via email that "several factors" had contributed to the decision to close the women's lounge. "There were concerns expressed previously, both on campus and from individuals such as Mr. Perry," he said.
"We had concerns raised previously from male and transgender students as well. As those concerns were expressed, and our Title IX office continued to look at the situation over the past year or so, we also had our general counsel take another look from a legal standpoint, specifically in light of Title IX. All of those discussions culminated in the decision being made to convert the lounge."
Other Ways to Protect Women
Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University and editor of Title IX Blog, wrote there that she agreed that Michigan State could not legally maintain a women's lounge or, as some have suggested, add a men's lounge. Only in a very limited number of circumstances, such as housing, bathrooms and so forth, may colleges go for a "separate but equal" approach, and study spaces are not among those circumstances, she wrote.
At the same time, Buzuvis wrote, the complaints of women about not being able to study without being harassed should lead Michigan State to come up with (legal) ways to help them. For instance, she said that Michigan State is within its right in having some single-sex student housing (either by floor or building). Student rooms within such spaces are covered by the house exemption on Title IX, she said.
Another option is that Michigan State could create (and enforce the rules in) completely quiet study spaces, so that all students could be assured that their work would not be interrupted and they would not be harassed.
Buzuvis stressed that just because the women's lounge may be illegal doesn't mean that the concerns being raised by the female students who have used the lounge aren't valid. "Students are justified in insisting on space to study that is free from interruption by other students who want to ask them out," she wrote.
Read more by
You may also be interested in...
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes
What Others Are Reading