In the hallowed halls of academia, Sexism no longer swaggers about in a wife beater with a Camel no-filter hanging from its defiant lip. Indeed, overt displays of machismo are rare, and all of the carefully crafted institutional rhetoric reflects and promotes principles of equality and tolerance. Our private liberal arts centered university, smack in the middle of a down-home red state, even has a women's caucus. In a stunning display of sheer determination and astounding courage, two of my colleagues (one untenured) swept away the decades-old dust left from the dirty dealings of the old boys' club and created the caucus. Today I am the head of this caucus, which boasts about 80 members of the faculty and staff.
Our most challenging work is finding the language to articulate the workings of an insidious sexism that results in what I like to call the quotidian miasma of discrimination, or the QMD (not to be confused with the chimerical WMD). The QMD is insidious because it is the byproduct of a constellation of factors that, when looked at individually, seem not to target women, but which converge on spaces where we are most likely to find women. This more nuanced version of sexism leaves us without a clear enemy, without the swaggering patriarch to flesh out the sinister intentionality behind the discrimination.
I remember as a grad student trying to understand the Matrix-like quality of the "patriarchal order." I always envisioned a bunch of old white men, semi-reclined in overstuffed chairs, hands clasped behind heads, cigars in mouths, gathered around a heavy wooden table in a locked room marked "Patriarchs." In the upper echelons of my university administration, there are plenty of Patriarchs who meet behind closed doors around heavy wooden tables, but the room lacks a clear label, although in the hallowed hall outside the university’s presidential suite, photographic portraits of trustees fill a wall with mostly male images. At my university, we have a male president and five male vice presidents.
Probably they don't overtly plan the continued subjugation of the second sex in their meetings, but regardless of their intentions, the dearth of women in the upper administration and in positions of power is a major contributing factor in the QMD. Because it is undetectable by the clumsy, outdated sexism radar we are still lugging around from the 70s, the QMD works stealthily and subtly.
So, if it's not wearing its hatred and fear of woman on its sleeve, what is Sexism wearing these days? On my campus, it sometimes saunters around in Birkenstocks, long hair, and maybe glasses. You know these guys. These are the men we went to grad school with, shared apartments with, read Judith Butler and bell hooks with. They eschewed virile formulas of manliness, embraced gender theory and were OK crossing their legs at the knees if it was crowded in the conference room. Now they have grown up and inherited the power positions at universities around the country, and, lacking real world experience as the discriminated, many of them have lost the sense of urgency they once felt about the rights of women and the distrust they once had for the administration.
Now they are the administration, if in a minor key. My friends and I have dubbed the administration "The Men's Caucus." Upon arrival, junior men are immediately and seamlessly made members of the Men's Caucus, invited to the all-male circles of power that spin the narratives of our professional lives in the lunch club, the wine club, the tennis group, Friday night basketball, Monday night poker.
To tell the truth, as I struggle through my Survivor-like work environment, male colleagues often have been my biggest supporters, and at times it was a senior woman colleague who made life miserable for the junior women in our department. She had internalized the patriarchal reward system and aligned herself with a senior male colleague, whose behavior and demeanor sent women around him back to the kitchen to make his coffee and fetch his metaphorical pipe. This aging Lothario was often seen bopping around in biker shorts, no shirt, and a cap worn backwards, or swaggering into meetings 10 minutes late wearing a huge, black cowboy hat. His persona stood in contrast to the values he seemed to espouse in his postmodern, liberal scholarship.
His self-styling, bespeaking a hyper-masculine posture and a desire for stark gender distinctions, emulated three of our most extreme forms of embodied virility: the jock, the cowboy, and the hip-hop gangster musician. My negotiations with the Lothario were always easier and more successful when I honored his role as mentor, protector, patron, father, leader, and Don Juan. He liked to make comments about our secretary's weight, and once he referred to our retired women colleagues as "dingbats." When one of the junior women got pregnant, he claimed in her written department review that her pregnancy had affected her job performance. At one of my first faculty dinners, he tipped back several glasses of wine and asked if I would be dancing on the table.
Unfortunately, our soft-spoken, measured, diplomatic dean did not take seriously the women who came forward with complaints about life in the kingdom of Lothario. Instead, the dean read women as damsels in distress to be rescued and then sent on their way with promises of inheritance, departmental ownership and pats on the head for good measure. But alas, in the end he returned the women colleagues to the oppressor's fiefdom, unwilling to betray the code of male privilege and loyalty that works to keep women distressed and in constant competition with each other for validation from the male power structure.
One wonders what would motivate him in this case. Maybe his loyalty to Lothario is rooted in some repressed nostalgia for the patriarch, or maybe he is overcompensating for his own imagined inadequacies when measured against the absent, yet longed-for virile authoritarian. Maybe sometimes the Birkenstock liberal yearns for a pair of cowboy boots and a Camel no-filter.
I managed to live through years of torment by self-centered, self-important, yet mediocre senior colleagues who eventually did grant me tenure, on the strength of my credentials, but to this day, old men roaming the halls tell tales of how the dean "saved" my job, or of how some other man was instrumental in my rescue. I might as well have been wearing a pointed pink hat and waving a hankie out the window of a medieval stone tower. In the patriarchal grand narrative, I was the damsel in distress. I began to wonder if I could ever emerge from this male tale.
The damsel in distress is a motif in the 17th century plays we read in my Golden Age literature class this semester. In these comedies, the women characters must negotiate their positions in an oppressive patriarchy that defines them as objects to be adored, possessed, protected, and rescued by the men, whose honor, virility, and social status derive form the women-objects they control.
Wait a minute, I kept thinking.... I've heard this story before.... Woman plays to the men in power by assuming roles that highlight and affirm male strength, and by disavowing the facets of her identity that are deemed threatening, irritating, or downright hysterical by the reigning paradigm. We shape each other's behavior by rewarding and withholding, by subtly voting for the parts of each other we like best. With many male colleagues, my damsel in distress routine is their favorite performance -- some wouldn't even call to talk unless there was a crisis on the table.
There is a multifarious and indefatigable pressure to be read as a damsel in distress, and, let's be fair, if women don't recognize our own participation in this system, then we preclude the possibility of creating new roles for ourselves, ones that do not require pointy hats or being tied to railroad tracks. How many of us let our need for substantiation from the powerful (all male, at least in my corner of academia) push us to create problems for our knights to solve? What will my professional future look like if I refuse to play the damsel in distress? I don’t want to play the women's roles we see in the formulaic Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, Maid in Manhattan, or Father of the Bride, but I don't want to end up playing roles like Monster or Thelma and Louise, either. I'm not ready for homicide or jumping off a cliff.
Women's Caucuses around the country must work to articulate the complex machinations of the QMD and to increase awareness about the ways many of us, including liberal men and feminists, are perpetuating it. Let us build alliances with our women cohorts and reject the paradigm that would have us compete against each other for male approval. We must be strategic and deliberate if we are to resist the immense pressure to accept prescribed roles that promise us "success" even as we are systematically excluded from the power structure that defines success and failure.
Phyllis Barone is the pseudonym of an ex-damsel and associate professor at a Midwestern, private university.
Comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat, A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thougtfullest.... --Walt Whitman
Academia is my hometown. I was raised to believe in its fundamental fairness. And since I am lucky enough to have landed a good, tenure-track, first job, and young enough that earlier generations of women fought the real battles for me, I had never really questioned that faith. The academic men I have known from childhood through my Ph.D., as family friends and as teachers, have with only one exception taken me seriously. I never had a male teacher tell me, as one friend was told, that women should make babies instead of going to graduate school. Since I am in the humanities, I was never openly mocked in class, as a woman engineering student I taught a few years ago was. No female professor told me, as one told a colleague, that women had to choose between family and an academic career. The only male teacher who ever kissed me also encouraged my scholarship. So I have never felt that I was discriminated against on the basis of my gender.
But at my new job I have just completed two hours of required online training about how to prevent harassment on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., and as a result have been thinking over my experiences. Despite the draconian strictures imposed by the training course, I have colleagues of both sexes who have become good friends, and whom in social settings I am happy to put my arms around. But to the chair or dean who is serious about gender equality in the workplace, I commend the handshake. I realize this sounds crotchety and old-fashioned -- and it is true that I also resent strangers using my first name -- but I object to the prevailing culture of the hug. The handshake is, in my view, the best way to communicate greeting, congratulation, and good will among colleagues.
Consider this: when I had passed the arduous third-year review process at a small university with a nationally-recruited faculty better than most of its students deserve, my female colleagues came to my office one by one and shook my hand. Some then asked, "May I hug you?" By contrast, my senior male colleagues ignored the right hand I stuck out in front of me, and enfolded me in the embrace known as a hug. They were people of good will, whose feelings I did not wish to hurt, and so I said nothing.
It is not so long ago that job candidates at this institution were routinely taken to the Playboy club, but that does not happen nowadays, and my first hint that my gender might matter to someone had come only halfway through my first term. A student having made unspecified complaints about my class, the chair, a self-proclaimed "recovering sexist" asked the senior woman in the department to talk to me, declaring, "This is one for the knitting circle." One day when four department women were heading out together, we twice encountered male colleagues who blanched and turned tail. The new chair saw two of us discussing grading practices and asked jovially, "What are you girls chatting about?"
What does this all add up to? Maybe nothing. My colleagues and the new chair supported my work and were kind to my family. My constant feelings of insecurity as the tenure decision approached were shared by a male colleague on the same timetable in another department. How much should I read into the fact that a window office went to a man junior to me, supposedly because I was out of town for the summer when it opened up? I don't know -- but I do know that I carefully considered what I might lose by insisting on my precedence.
And I know I never had the courage to say anything about the hugs. The gender problems in the department came to the fore when a senior colleague's wife suspected him of having an affair with a graduate student, and demanded that he no longer work with her. Despite the fact that her thesis could not be properly supervised without him, the department -- I heard indirectly, since everything took place behind closed doors -- acquiesced in the demand, and worked out a deal that gave the student an additional year of funding and arranged for her to work long-distance with a comparable scholar at another institution. The department further agreed -- hearsay again -- that the man in question would never again work with female graduate students.
Naturally, the graduate bulletin was not revised, but this would mean that only men could be admitted to focus on a certain period in history, and that women who came to the department hoping to have this eminent scholar on their committee would be disappointed. I was outraged, but my senior female colleague advised me to keep quiet, since I did not yet have tenure, and the matter was never discussed in a full department meeting. Furthermore, the student herself, although an experienced lawyer, told me that she did not want to hurt her former advisor by making a fuss: the same mentality that kept me from objecting to those awkward, unnecessary hugs.
Chairs and deans who are serious about gender equality: I commend to you the handshake. From brief and frosty to warm and two-handed, the handshake is capable of expressing any feeling that should be expressed between colleagues.
Coral Hughes, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches history at a research university.
As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King this week, we recall his famous wish that Americans be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. How are we doing in fulfilling that dream?
Well, I am amazed at how frequently I will read a news article in which a school district or college will declare that it is essential to hire more teachers of this or that skin color or national origin. The faculty must mirror the student population, we are told, and students of each race and ancestry need “role models.”
Two recent examples: The Indianapolis Star ran an article headlined “Schools intensify hunt for minority teachers,” with the subheadline “Metro-area districts struggle to make faculties mirror growing diversity of student enrollments.”
Likewise, the Leadership Alliance -- which is a coalition of 29 higher-education institutions that was established 13 years ago to bring more minority students into mathematics, science, engineering, and technology -- held a conference in Washington. At the meeting, speakers cited the “need to increase the number of faculty of color who can serve as role models.”
One more example, that came across my desk as this piece was being edited: The Boston Globe ran an article about Randolph, Mass. headlined, “To reflect students, town woos minority teachers.” The school committee chairwoman was quoted: “It’s providing role models for the kids.”
It is understood that, in order to achieve this greater diversity, skin color and ethnicity will be considered in the recruitment and hiring process. And so, inevitably, some candidates will be given preferences, and others disfavored, because of these external characteristics. It cannot be denied: If race is given weight in the search, then you are no longer looking for the best candidate, regardless of race.
I’m amazed at the news stories because the role model justification for hiring preferences is so clearly (a) illegal and (b) bad policy.
And, really, they shouldn’t even need a lawyer to tell them that the role model approach is wrong.
For starters, universities, colleges, and schools should ignore skin color and national origin and simply hire the best professors and teachers they can. Period. It’s hard enough to get competent teachers at any level without disqualifying some and preferring others because of irrelevant physical characteristics.
Show me a parent who would say, “I’m willing for my child to be taught by a less qualified teacher so long as he or she shares my child’s color.” As for research and writing, hiring anything less than the best qualified minds will inevitably compromise the school’s or college's academic mission.
Second, it is ugly indeed to presuppose that one can admire -- one can adopt as a role model -- only someone who shares your skin color and, conversely, that a white child could never look up to a black person, or a black child to a white person, or either one to an Asian or Latino or American Indian. Does this also mean that men cannot admire women, or a Christians admire a Jew, or the able-bodied admire someone in a wheelchair?
When President Bush was asked who he wanted to grow up to be when he was a boy, he replied without hesitation, “Willie Mays.” And why not?
Third, the notion that our schoolteachers and professors must look like our students leads into some very undesirable corners.
As Justice Powell wrote in Wygant, “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.”
And if you have a school district that is all-white, does that mean that it is all right to refuse to hire blacks? If you have a school district that has no Latino children, does that mean you should avoid hiring Hispanic teachers? And if your school district’s students are only 5 percent Asian, should that be your ceiling for Asian teachers?
Likewise, are Idaho universities entitled to avoid hiring African Americans, Maine colleges Latinos, and Nebraska schools Asians -- to ensure that those states’ natives are not taught by someone who may not look like they do? Should Ruth Simmons have been disqualified as president of Brown University, on the grounds that she is an unsuitable role model for the white male students there?
Yes, sex will rear its ugly head, too.
Schoolteachers remain a disproportionately female profession, but students include as many boys as girls. Does that mean that schools ought to be granting a preference to men when they hire faculty?
The truth of the matter is that the “role model” claim is just another made-up excuse to engage in the politically correct discrimination that is so fashionable among so many of our so-called educators.
This discrimination is illegal, unfair, silly, and harmful. Whenever a school is distracted from looking for anyone other than the best possible teacher, it is in the end the students who will pay the price. Hire by content of character, not color of skin.
Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!
In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.
In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.
As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.
This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?
Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:
It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.
To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.
While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.
As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.
And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:
Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.
Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.
In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?
The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!
Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.
Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.
Until recently, the interests of graduate students have largely been ignored by university “family friendly” initiatives designed to meet the needs of women on the tenure track who aspire to be mothers as well as scholars. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Stanford University announced its new Childbirth Policy for women graduate students with fanfare, nor that it was positively received by the national news media. What’s puzzling is how little attention has been paid to the huge gap between Stanford’s aspiration and its accomplishment.
The rationale for the policy is exemplary: “Stanford University is committed to achieving a diverse graduate student body, and facilitating the participation of under-represented groups in all areas of research and graduate and postdoctoral training. To increase the number of women pursuing … advanced degrees … it is important to acknowledge that a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.”
Unfortunately, the policy itself -- which provides accommodation in the form of paid leave, extension of deadlines and reduced workload to graduate students “anticipating or experiencing a birth” -- sends an entirely different message.
While the phrase “anticipating or experiencing a birth” seems expansive enough to cover “anticipating” the birth of an adoptive child, that is not Stanford’s intention. Associate Dean for Graduate Policy Gail Mahood was brutally frank on this point: “The policy does not apply to women who adopt children.… Women can always put off adopting,” she told a reporter.
Apparently Stanford prefers grad students who create families “the old fashioned way,” leaving others to sink or swim without institutional support. So much for the message of inclusiveness and diversity! In creating this restrictive policy, Stanford seems to have lost sight of its original goal, confused means and ends, and conflated biology (childbirth) with social issues (family formation).
Ordinarily, women become pregnant as a means to start a family, not to “experience childbirth.” Other ways to accomplish this goal are adoption, surrogacy and becoming a foster parent. Absent some as-yet-undisclosed study linking female fertility to academic talent, it seems odd that Stanford would decide that only fertile women able to carry a fetus to term deserve institutional support for their decision to start a family during graduate school.
The privileging of birth mothers over adoptive mothers is as illogical as it is offensive to families who have struggled with infertility prior to adopting. Under the literal terms of this policy, whose avowed purpose is “to make sure that we retain in the academic pipeline women graduate students who become pregnant and give birth,” a graduate student who gives her child up for adoption immediately after birth could request accommodation, while the adoptive mother who cares for that newborn could not.
Equally, if not more disturbing, is the policy’s failure to support graduate student couples who want to share the task of balancing work and family, thereby promoting a traditional heterosexual family structure that has proved detrimental to women’s achievement. Recognizing that “[t]aking care of an infant is time-consuming and sleep-depriving so advisors need to have realistic expectations about rates of progress on research,” the policy denies the same compassionate recognition to other graduate student caregivers who might be equally in need of help -- e.g., biological fathers, gay couples, adoptive parents or biological mothers who used a surrogate to carry the fetus to term.
Thus, the only graduate student families who will benefit from the childbirth accommodation policy are those who choose to conform to the traditional gender role model of mom stays home to bond with baby while dad goes to work. This patterning of gender stereotyped roles is unlikely to prove advantageous to the woman’s future career.
One would have expected Stanford’s policymakers to heed the counsel of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist (a Stanford alumnus) on the importance of gender-neutral family leave benefits, in a 2003 case:
“Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied them similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave. These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.”
Finally, by excluding everyone but the birth mom from accommodation, the policy may even override the woman’s own preference in the matter: Stanford seems not to have envisioned the possibility that the birth parents might both be graduate students, and that a new mother-scientist at a critical research juncture might choose to return to her lab right away, if only the policy were flexible enough to accommodate her partner’s desire to stay home and tend to the newborn.
Stanford deserves some credit for being the second nationally prominent graduate school to attempt any accommodation for grad students who become parents. (MIT was the first.) But the progressive impulse that spawned this “breakthrough” has been undermined by using “childbirth accommodation” as a proxy for easing the burden on new mothers. If the goal is truly to achieve diversity by increasing the number of women pursuing advanced degrees, surely a Class I research institution can craft a policy more likely to fulfill its intended purpose -- one not limited to the “June Cleavers” in its grad student population, but generous enough to encompass 21st century parenthood in all its diversity.
Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco lawyer known for her expertise in the areas of academic discrimination and gender stereotyping. She is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.
This month in an important victory for free speech on campus, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Temple University’s former sexual harassment policy was unconstitutional. While free speech advocates from across the ideological spectrum cheered the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn v. Temple University, some critics expressed dismay at what they deemed a “very ominous” example of “activist judging.” These critics are wrong -- and it’s important for both students and university administrators to understand why.
In February of 2006, Christian DeJohn filed a complaint in federal district court alleging that Temple had violated his First Amendment rights by punishing him for political expression. Among other serious allegations, DeJohn’s complaint charged that Temple’s sexual harassment policy (which, for example, prohibited “generalized sexist remarks”) violated his First Amendment right to free expression. DeJohn asserted that he felt inhibited from discussing his views on the role of women in the military, among other issues, and worried that he could be punished under Temple’s policy for expressing his opinions.
Seeking to obviate DeJohn’s First Amendment challenges, Temple revised its sexual harassment policy in 2007 by scrapping the sections of its policy at issue before the district court. Having done so, Temple asked the court to dismiss the portion of DeJohn’s complaint that related to the sexual harassment policy. However, the district court denied Temple’s motion, arguing that nothing prevented Temple from reinstituting the original policy following the conclusion of DeJohn’s suit. In March 2007, the district court found Temple’s now-abandoned sexual harassment policy to be unconstitutional on its face and issued an injunction against its enforcement.
Temple appealed the district court’s ruling to the Third Circuit in April 2007. This month, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of DeJohn, concluding that Temple’s former sexual harassment policy was unconstitutionally overbroad and affirming the lower court’s holding. Explaining that “[d]iscussion by adult students in a college classroom should not be restricted,” the court found that Temple’s former policy prohibited constitutionally protected speech and was therefore unacceptably overbroad.
Some critics of the opinion argue that the court should have found DeJohn’s claims moot since the university voluntarily revised the policy before the appeal was heard. But in the opinion, the Third Circuit rejected the mootness argument. Following U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the court held that a finding of mootness is only appropriate if “it can be said with assurance that there is no reasonable expectation that the alleged violation will recur.” Because Temple, in its appellate brief, defended both the constitutionality of its former policy and its particular necessity on Temple's campus, the court held that it could not be certain that Temple would not simply reinstate the policy once the litigation was over.
Indeed, Temple’s brief on appeal argued vehemently for the constitutionality of its former policy. Temple’s aggressive defense of its policy was fueled by outside events: between the time the District Court found the policy unconstitutional and the Third Circuit was to hear the appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant decision that Temple hoped would change the outcome of its case.
In Morse v. Frederick, decided in June 2007, the Supreme Court held that a public high school did not violate the First Amendment in suspending a student for unfurling a banner that read “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” at a school-sponsored event. In their appellate brief, Temple seized on Morse and sought to expand its holding. Temple contended that Morse granted public colleges broad authority to restrict the speech of adult college students in the same way that high schools could regulate the speech of their students (who are generally under 18) -- an expansion particularly threatening to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. As a result, Temple argued, its sexual harassment policy was acceptable in the post-Morse environment.
Given Temple’s argument that its sexual harassment policy was constitutionally permissible in light of new legal precedent, it is not surprising -- and hardly a mark of activism -- that the Third Circuit felt compelled to issue a decision on the case. But in reaching its decision on mootness, the Third Circuit did not fashion new legal principles out of whole cloth. Rather, the court followed the explicit guidance of its own precedent -- which, as the opinion notes, “articulate[s] the burden for the party alleging mootness as “‘heavy,’ even ‘formidable.’” Indeed, every aspect of the Third Circuit’s decision relies heavily on appropriate precedent, whether from its own appellate decisions or those of the Supreme Court. If anything, Temple’s brief argued for the more “activist” outcome by claiming that the Supreme Court’s narrow holding concerning high school students in Morse could be used to justify maintaining an overbroad speech code in the collegiate setting. Had the Third Circuit applied a high school case like Morse to colleges and universities, the resulting opinion would have represented a sea change in our legal thinking about college students’ rights, opening the door to the wholesale evisceration of free expression on campus.
Not only is the Third Circuit’s ruling in DeJohn not “activist,” it is not political, as some have charged. DeJohn is squarely in line with 50 years of Supreme Court decisions placing special emphasis on the importance of free speech in higher education, as well as two decades of district court decisions uniformly ruling that at public colleges, speech codes (often masquerading as anti-harassment policies)are unconstitutional. In this case, opposition to Temple’s speech code brought together groups as ideologically varied as the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Christian Legal Society, Feminists for Free Expression, the Student Press Law Center, Students for Academic Freedom, Collegefreedom.org, and the Alliance Defense Fund. If anything, opposition to speech codes has transcended partisan divides, as judges and advocacy organizations from all over the country and the political spectrum agree that such codes are incompatible with fundamental First Amendment freedoms and the unique role of the university in American life.
DeJohn’s critics also argue that the Third Circuit erred by considering DeJohn’s claims against Temple without what they consider to be ample evidence that DeJohn had been specifically harmed by Temple’s sexual harassment policy. Robert M. O’Neil, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, told Inside Higher Ed that he found the Third Circuit’s opinion to be “very ominous” because he believed the court did not sufficiently consider whether DeJohn was actually affected by the policy. O’Neil said the court offered “no proof that this plaintiff was in any way put at risk or threatened or even reasonably felt threatened by the existence of the policy.”
Facial challenges for overbreadth are a unique, well-established and crucial aspect of First Amendment law. Recognizing that First Amendment rights are “supremely precious in our society,” the Supreme Court developed the overbreadth doctrine to protect speech from the chilling effect that occurs when a law or regulation is written so broadly that it reaches substantial amounts of protected speech. Plaintiffs may challenge allegedly overbroad statutes “as written,” rather than “as applied,” on behalf of those not in front of the court. The idea is that anyone subject to a law or policy that restricts his or her right to freedom of speech may challenge it on behalf of all citizens negatively affected by the constitutional violation.
Contrary to O’Neil’s characterization that there existed “no proof” that DeJohn “reasonably felt threatened” by Temple’s policy, the Third Circuit determined that, as a Temple student, DeJohn suffered from the policy’s existence. As the court noted, DeJohn argued that the policy made him feel “inhibited in expressing his opinions in class concerning women in combat and women in the military.” In other words, the policy had an impermissible “chilling effect” on his right to free expression. DeJohn was “concerned that discussing his social, cultural, political, and/or religious views regarding these issues might be sanctionable by the university” -- and by concluding that Temple’s policy “provide[d] no shelter for core protected speech,” the Third Circuit accepted these concerns as legitimate and reasonable. Because the Supreme Court has held that even a fleeting loss of First Amendment freedoms “unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” the Third Circuit was absolutely correct in determining that DeJohn had suffered sufficiently to entertain his facial challenge.
The DeJohn opinion should come as no surprise to public universities. District courts have been striking down overbroad harassment policies for nearly 20 years. Rather than reaching unexpectedly “ominous” or “activist” legal conclusions, DeJohn simply provided a reaffirmation of clearly established law.
The Third Circuit adhered strictly to the standard for student-on-student harassment announced by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, a 1999 opinion holding that actionable harassment is limited to that behavior so “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive ... that the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” The Third Circuit made clear in DeJohn that Davis’s standard must be carefully followed, writing that “[a]bsent any requirement akin to a showing of severity or pervasiveness -- that is, a requirement that the conduct objectively and subjectively creates a hostile environment or substantially interferes with an individual’s work,” harassment policies like Temple’s provide “no shelter for core protected speech.”
If anything, the most noteworthy aspect of the Third Circuit’s ruling was the court’s refusal to import Morse’s restrictions on student speech into the university setting. That is a victory, because treating the First Amendment rights of university students as functionally equivalent to those of high school students fundamentally confuses the unique pedagogical missions of each level of schooling. The Third Circuit’s clear pronouncement that the First Amendment rights of adult college students must not be abridged should be welcomed by public universities, not feared.
William Creeley, Samantha Harris and Greg Lukianoff
Will Creeley is a lawyer and the director of Legal and Public Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Samantha Harris is a lawyer and the director of Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource for FIRE. Greg Lukianoff is a lawyer and president of FIRE.
Sexual harassment has been and continues to be a real phenomenon. The evidence is clear. The destructive effects are also clear, sometimes for all the individual parties concerned. And the adverse effects are evident for the profession as a whole.
What is much less clear is what can be done to reduce, if not eliminate altogether this phenomenon. Some institutions have adopted mandatory training about sexual harassment for all department heads and/or for all faculty members. Last year, for example, the University of Iowa instituted such a requirement in the wake of a high profile sexual harassment case.
Such required training was at the heart of a dispute between a University of California at Irvine professor, Alexander McPherson, and his university. In response to Professor McPherson’s refusal to undergo the training, the university relieved him of supervision of the employees in his lab and threatened to withhold his salary. McPherson, who was never accused of harassment, indicated that he was offended by the requirement, that it was a violation of his principles, and that such training was called for only in the event that demonstrated problems had been found in a unit. In his words, “There is no more reason that I need to take sex harassment training than I need to take training on avoiding grand theft auto or murder or any other crime. The state is imposing this based on politics and that can’t be allowed.”
Writing as a scholar of higher education, and not as the new general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (a post I assumed January 1), I would offer three observations on this issue.
First is that there are other realms of activity in which faculty members must undergo required training, without any presumption of an offense having been committed. In research universities (where professors’ work routinely involves human subjects, though even there literary and some other scholars are not required to undergo such training), perhaps the most obvious example of this is the human subjects training surrounding research grants and activity. Prior to getting grants approved by the sponsored projects division of a university, an investigator must have undergone human subjects training. Although the training varies by university, there are common patterns nationally. Typically, for example, such training is online, and is not particularly rigorous, to put it mildly. Indeed, the format involves investigators taking an exam by reading some written passages and then answering questions about them. After each section or module the person finds out whether he or she missed too many questions in a section, and proceeds. If they have missed too many questions in a section they simply backtrack, get the same questions in a different order, and retake the quiz, until they pass. A widely used set of exams (which are specified to social/behavioral and biomedical research) are those offered by the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative, which over 830 institutions and facilities (including a very large number of research universities, and indeed including the University of California at Irvine) utilize. The modules for the CITI quiz typically include three to six questions.
For the most part, although faculty complain about the inconvenience and irrelevance of the training, I do not know of anyone who would suggest that such training should be required only of investigators found to have violated the rights of human subjects. The more important questions of process and principle surround the institutional review board activities that regulate the approval of an investigator’s proposal. Here, serious questions have been raised about compromising investigators’ academic freedom to engage in certain types of research and to research certain subject matter. But the controversy is not, for the most part, about the human subjects training per se. Indeed, I would venture to say that for colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences, among the most common comments and complaints about human subjects training are that it is ineffective, that it does little by way of actually protecting human subjects and seems to be geared more to protecting the institution. The same might be said with regard to sexual harassment training, or any other “public” program of “training” that a college or university requires of its employees, including faculty members.
This leads to my second observation about the issue of institutions requiring sexual harassment training for faculty. What purpose does it serve? As Professor McPherson says of the requirement, “I have never heard the university advance a reasonable and convincing explanation.” In fact, there is no evidence that such one-time training is effective in reducing the activity in questions. Here, I would agree with Professor McPherson’s questioning of the rigor and effectiveness of such training. Thus, he notes that some of his colleagues log in to the online training, wait for a period of time, and then give random answers to questions. He also notes the regular distribution of materials to employees providing information regarding the rules and regulations surrounding sexual harassment, rendering in his view the online training unnecessary.
Whatever the nature of the online training, and the behavior of the participants, there is ample reason to question the impact of a single experience on behavior. Perhaps there is even greater reason to questions the behavioral impact of such an intervention when it is “virtual.” However, such formal training may nevertheless serve an important function for the organization, by providing legal and external “cover” for the college or university in question.
Here, it is worth noting that in 1995 the AAUP adopted a report (revised from a 1984 report that had been adopted) on this matter (“Sexual Harassment: Suggested Policy and Procedures for Handling Complaints”) that noted the incentive for institutions to adopt not only policies but also educational programs due to some Supreme Court decisions. As a scholar in the field of higher education, and as one who studies and writes about higher education organizations, I would go a step further. There is a large body of organizational research, known as institutional theory, which suggests that one of the main reasons for the emergence in organizations of such formal structures as required training programs is that it is a response to external concerns about a domain of activity and an effort to maintain or (re)establish the organization’s legitimacy in the eyes of the external world.
This need not be a cynical view, suggesting that neither institutional leaders nor the professionals engaged in developing and delivering formal training programs (whether in sexual harassment, human subjects, or in the area of teaching) are actually committed to affecting and improving behavior in the college or university. Rather, it is a view about the predominant and ultimate effects of such formal structures. It is much easier to publicly establish an office or an educational program to address some area of concern (such as sexual harassment) than it is to affect the private behaviors of professionals. Thus, when confronted with a potential challenge to an institution’s external legitimacy, because it is seen as violating some prevailing norms in the broader society, it makes sense for a president to support the creation of public, yet “virtual” structures such as online training modules in sexual harassment. It makes sense because at the very least it is a way of publicly demonstrating that the organization is trying to do something to prevent behavior that violates society’s norms and/or laws.
Given the above, and given the premise that sexual harassment has been and continues to be a phenomenon that we need to address and reduce, if not eliminate, how can such change be effected?
This question leads to my third observation, which is that the change we seek requires an exercise of political will and an excising of cultural ills. With regard to the former, the policies and laws are in place to enable supervisors to act fairly yet aggressively when sexual harassment takes place. If we provide and cultivate the mechanisms to enable the reporting of what research suggests is an underreported behavior, then the structures are in place if academic (and other) administrators at various levels will systematically and appropriately be receptive to reports of harassment, forcefully pursue those cases, and perhaps most important of all, be evaluated by their own supervisors according to whether they do so. With regard to the excising of cultural ills, we must all take responsibility to embed in our daily lives a pattern of interaction that clarifies, monitors, and maintains boundaries of appropriate behavior. Among the cultural ills we need to address head on is not only sexual harassment (and a range of hostile and chilly climate issues), but also the academic cultural norm of not confronting the bad behavior of peers. An argument could be made that as a profession academics are much better at disputing colleagues’ scholarly positions and ideas than we are at sanctioning the behaviors of peers.
Deeply embedded in the consciousness of most academics in the U.S. is a sense of the profound value of and right to due process involving review by one’s faculty peers, and to academic freedom. Both of these are not only found in the AAUP report noted above (as well as in its 1994 report on “Due Process in Sexual Harassment Complaints”), they arguably can be traced to the AAUP’s important work over the past century to establish and defend these rights. The association’s report on sexual harassment identifies harassment (based on gender, or on race/ethnicity, or other considerations, to which I would add sexual orientation) as being unethical and as “inconsistent with the maintenance of academic freedom on campus.” It is our responsibility as a profession, to embed in our consciousness and in our daily practice a vigorous commitment to and promotion of a profession free from sexual (and other forms of) harassment. Fulfilling that responsibility (which runs much deeper than public but relatively superficial, virtual steps like requiring everyone to undergo training) will better enable us as a profession to benefit and learn from increasingly diverse populations of colleagues and students, thereby more fully realizing our potential as an academy and as a society.
Gary Rhoades is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
Hardly a month goes by without another major foundation or education advocacy group reminding us of the peril our country faces if we don't send more students to college. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that the United States is slipping fast in international rankings. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, we rank no better than 10th in higher education attainment. Most striking among the measures is the "survival rate," the measurement of enrolled students who actually earn diplomas. Our students rank at the bottom of the developed world.
Visit the Web sites of the prominent foundations -- Gates, Lumina, Broad -- and you will see the same message that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and corporate leaders such as Intel's Craig Barrett have been warning about for years: We need to broaden the college pipeline, and do it quickly. The latest study pointing out our educational weaknesses – and offering solutions – arrived earlier this month from the respected MDRC, which offered the Obama administration a 15-point plan for turning things around.
Interestingly, however, there's something all these groups studiously avoid talking about. These U.S. education numbers look bad primarily because the schools are failing boys. For the most part, those awful high school graduation numbers are driven by boys, not girls (32 percent of boys drop out, compared to 25 percent of girls). And the lackluster college graduation rates are due primarily to men floundering in college (men earn about 42 percent of four-year degrees). Given that men are far more likely to major in math and science – a special worry for the technical industries -- the chamber should be particularly concerned about men falling behind.
But the gender angle never gets mentioned. Popular, well-thought-out solutions, which include strengthening the high school curriculum, building better after-school programs and making college more affordable, skirt the obvious solution of reaching out to failing boys specifically. As for MDRC's 15-point plan – gender didn't get a mention.
Those omissions are striking, given that boosting the number of men earning college degrees should be the low-hanging-fruit remedy. Why the silence? The boys issue gets skipped because it has become a controversy; one of those he said/she said spats where the dialogue becomes downright unpleasant. In cases like this, the easy tactic is to steer clear. Interestingly, only in the United States is the boys issue considered so controversial. Countries such as Britain and Australia have been openly confronting the problem for years. There, the boy troubles are an issue to be studied and remedied, not something to squabble about.
All this gives our new education secretary, Arne Duncan, an opportunity: Why not do what Australia did and launch a federal probe into the boy problems? Duncan has the ideal vehicle, the freshly unveiled $15 billion grant program to reward initiatives that draw academic achievements from students less inclined to succeed. That would include boys.
In fairness to Duncan, he needs to know what he would be getting himself into. Why is this considered a controversy? That question can't be answered with absolute precision, but from years of reporting on this issue I have picked up on two threads. The first arose in 1992 when the American Association of University Women released a report about girls being shortchanged in schools, in part because teachers paid more attention to hyperactive boys jumping up to wave their hands in the air: Call on me! I was one of many education reporters who wrote about the report uncritically. That was a mistake. Hindsight tells us the schools-favor-boys research was shaky.
Regardless, the AAUW report unleashed a save-the-girls juggernaut. That girls' crusade ended up doing a lot of good by boosting female participation in advanced math and science classes. Today, girls dominate most of those courses. But the flawed research left behind an unfortunate legacy. Boys, who clearly needed the help more than girls, once again got ignored.
The second thread emerged in 2000 with the release of Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War Against Boys. Sommers expertly laid out the case that boys, not girls, were suffering in school. Given that she was one of the first to tackle this issue, combined with the fact that The Atlantic serialized the book, Sommers had a unique opportunity to set the agenda about boys. Had Sommers stuck with her solid argument that boys were in trouble and then proposed solutions, it is conceivable the U.S. Department of Education would have launched a national investigation, identified the problems and funded experiments to arrest boys' academic slide. Today, the United States today could rank with Australia at the forefront of fashioning solutions to help boys.
But that's not how things played out. Instead of focusing solely on boys, Sommers devoted most her book to attacking feminists, blaming them for the boy troubles. Naturally, the feminists fought back, fingering Sommers as the tip of the spear of what they dubbed a "backlash" movement, those pushing back against the hard-won gains of women. Who could blame the feminists? After all, the book's subtitle was, How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.
Since then, everything's been pretty much downhill. If boys are suffering any problems, argue feminists, those problems are limited to minority boys and rooted in racism and poverty, not gender.
Higher education leaders, who feel they are blameless in the boy troubles and have reaped the benefits of ever-rising numbers of female applicants, look the other way. That is proving to be a mistake. High-tuition second and third-tier private colleges that tolerated significant gender imbalances are now under stress from the recession. Today, they may be wishing they had stepped forward to try to solve the male college pipeline problem, which goes well beyond poor and minority boys.
Elite colleges generally don’t suffer gender imbalances, especially those offering boys admissions preferences. Plus, their faculties remain fixated on the Larry Summers fiasco at Harvard. His musings over why fewer women occupy top academic spots politicized campus gender issues, leaving professors likely to embrace the viewpoints of the feminists, who argue that women, not men, are the aggrieved parties in higher education.
Given all this, it’s easy to understand why groups such as Gates and the U.S. Chamber prefer to duck. Who can blame them? Problem is, ducking does nothing to solve the very problem they raise, the slipping status of the United States as an educated workforce – a phenomenon driven mostly by boys. Secretary Duncan, you have a unique opportunity to get us beyond this political divide. Settle this issue once and for all. Boosting college graduation rates is an issue too important to be mired in this controversy.
Richard Whitmire, president of the National Education Writers Association, blogs at whyboysfail.com
College admissions directors curious about the experience of touching a third rail can review what happened when the president of the University of Alberta suggested that Canadian males, including white males, needed a helping hand.
She got fried ... by her own students.
Last month, President Indira Samarasekera pointed to the preponderance of women in higher education in Canada (three female undergraduates for every two males) and suggested that perhaps males could need some extra attention. "We’ll wake up in 20 years and we will not have the benefit of enough male talent," said Samarasekera, a metallurgical engineer originally from Sri Lanka. “I’m going to be an advocate for young white men, because I can be,” she added, pointing to her Nixon-to-China status as a minority woman advocating for men.
A fair number of her students were not happy. Within 24 hours the campus was awash with posters poking fun at the notion of women taking over higher education. “Women are attacking campus,” read one. “Only white men can save our university! Stop the femimenace.”
Humorous, perhaps, but here’s why this is not funny to college officials in the United States: currently, the University of Alberta grants no admissions preferences to men – unlike scores, perhaps even hundreds, of colleges in the United States that for years have been turning down women for less qualified men.The preferences many colleges give to men are far less formal and less debated than those that help minority applicants, or women applying to some programs. But many, many admissions offices routinely look at male applicants’ test scores and grades with lower expectations than they have when viewing those of female applicants.
What happened to President Samarasekera is just a taste of what’s in store for these colleges when thousands of female high school students and their parents discover that the college of their dreams is a farther reach for them than for the slacker boy next door.
And they will find out, because in roughly six months the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will release its findings on the breadth of the preferences practice. Among higher education insiders, there’s not much mystery to the investigation: favoring men is an open secret at private, four-year colleges, where there’s no legal penalty for helping men. Actually, it’s even done by some public colleges willing to roll the dice in the hope they won’t get sued.
How, you ask, has this remained a secret so long? Because all the interested parties have signed off on the conspiracy.
Feminist groups studiously ignore the issue of women dominating college campuses; it drains credibility from their claim as a disadvantaged group in need of redress. The day after the recent commission announcement it was investigating bias against women, groups such as National Organization for Women and the American Association of University Women were silent on the news -- despite this being an issue presumably dear to their hearts.
In a later comment to U.S. News & World Report, the AAUW’s director of public policy described the probe as missing the point. “We need to help impoverished boys and girls to improve educational outcomes and have equal opportunity," said Lisa Maatz.
As for the other interested parties, conservative groups prefer to sue on the issue on racial preferences and have not historically flown to the defense of women. College officials? They aren’t going to flush themselves into the open on this issue. Most female students want to see more men on campus, regardless of how they get there. High school senior girls are generally unaware and unorganized. And men, well, they’re pretty much oblivious ... and when they land on gender unbalanced campuses, they are, well, delighted.
The commission report will change all that, leaving colleges with a simple question: how do we get in front of this public relations briar patch?
The obvious answer, shutting down admission preferences granted males, is not workable. The fear among college officials about a campus swinging more than 60 percent female exceeds the fear of getting sued. And in all honesty, until K-12 educators can "fix" the boy troubles, which arise in the very early grades, men need that extra help getting into college.
So what’s a college to do? There’s one big step that would make a huge difference: make it acceptable to talk about the boy troubles. Let the public know that boys are not just enrolling at lower rates but arriving on campus less prepared than the girls. Currently, it’s considered politically incorrect to even mention the issue. Don’t men rule the White House and Wall Street?
As a result, the foundations invested in growing the college enrollment and graduation rates, along with the U.S. Department of Education, churn out report after report about how to accomplish those goals, breaking down the numbers by poverty and race, without mentioning the obvious solution: boost the rates at which men enroll and graduate from college.
Indira Samarasekera had it right. For college officials, this should be your Nixon-to-China moment. Only presidents and admissions directors, most of them liberals in good standing, can raise this issue and not get hammered. Dr. Samarasekera took a whacking but she’s not backing down. Male failings in higher education are adding up to a "demographic bomb," she told the press after the flap.
If Dr. Samarasekera can say that -- and survive -- so can you. As a pathway to get in front of the approaching furor, this is your best shot.
"I was really worried about coming out as transgender to anyone else because I knew there weren’t any policies. I was so afraid that my school would ban me from my sport and that was the only thing I had at the time. I finally decided to come out my senior year of college because I was going down a slippery slope and I didn't think I could pull myself out if I didn't come out."
--A transgender former college athlete
Many transgender athletes relate similar experiences that make their participation on college teams painful and frustrating: An athlete is called "she/he" and "it" by opposing players during a game. An athlete stops playing sports in college because it becomes too uncomfortable to use the locker room. An athlete has to change clothes in a utility closet separate from the rest of the team. An athlete quits the team because it becomes too painful to keep reminding coaches and teammates about the athlete's preferred pronouns. None of the institutions or athletic conferences in which these athletes compete have a policy governing the inclusion of transgender student-athletes on sports teams.
These descriptions and many others like them characterize the experiences of many young people who identify as transgender and want to play on their colleges' athletic teams. Transgender is a broad term used to describe the experiences of people whose gender identity and expression do not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people transition to live as their preferred gender by changing their names and the pronouns they use to refer to themselves. They express their preferred gender through choice of clothes, hairstyles and other manifestations of gender expression and identity. Some transgender people undergo reconstructive surgery or take hormones to make their bodies more congruent with their internal sense of themselves. Others do not.
Since the increased visibility of a transgender rights movement in the 1980s and a school-based LGBT "safe schools" movement in the 1990s, more young people have the language and information they need to identify the gender dissonance they experience between the sex they were assigned at birth and the gender identity that they know to be true for them. They are increasingly identifying themselves as transgender and they are doing it at earlier ages. In addition, parents are much more likely to support their transgender children and advocate for them in schools. As more states add "gender identity and expression" to non-discrimination legislation and as these legal protections are applied to schools, transgender students and their parents have increased leverage to ensure that educational institutions address their needs. K-12 school and college educators find themselves playing catch up as they learn to accommodate the educational needs of trans-identified students and protect them from bullying and harassment in school or at college.
Many of these young people want to play on their schools' or colleges' sports teams. As a result, athletic directors and coaches increasingly find themselves unprepared to make decisions about what team a transgender student is eligible to play for. As the number of transgender students who want to play on school sports teams increases, school athletic leaders must identify effective and fair policies to ensure their right to participate. Though the issue of accommodating the needs of transgender students, staff and faculty in higher education has received attention, it has not been adequately addressed in athletics. Many colleges have changed policies on access to bathrooms, residence halls or face controversy because they have not done so. In athletics, conversations about accommodating transgender students have only recently begun.
For the most part, athletic teams at high schools and colleges are segregated by sex and divided into men’s and women’s teams. For transgender students, determining on which gender’s team, if any, they will be allowed to play can be a difficult process fraught with misconceptions, ignorance and discrimination. Few high school or collegiate athletic programs, administrators or coaches are prepared to address a transgender student’s interest in participating in athletics in a systematic, fair and effective manner. Few athletes have been given the information that would prepare them to participate on a team with a teammate whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
The vast majority of school athletic programs have no policy governing the inclusion of transgender athletes and athletic staff have no idea how to accommodate a transgender student who wants to play on a college sports team. Even basic accommodations can be confusing, such as what pronouns or name to use to refer to that student, where that student should change clothes for practice or competition, what bathroom that student should use, or how to apply team dress codes.
Washington is the only state that has a policy identifying the process for enabling transgender students to participate in high school athletics. The National Collegiate Athletic Association does not prohibit transgender students from participating in NCAA sponsored events, but recommends that NCAA member institutions use a student’s official identity documents (birth certificate, driver’s license or passport) to determine whether a student-athlete is eligible to compete on the men’s or women’s team. Because of wide variations in state requirements for changing identity documents, however, the NCAA recommendation unintentionally creates an inequitable situation depending on where the student is enrolled.
Applying the 2004 International Olympic Committee policy governing the participation of transsexual athletes in IOC sanctioned events to collegiate athletics is problematic for a number of reasons. The IOC policy, though pioneering, is criticized by knowledgeable medical experts and transgender advocates for requiring genital reconstructive surgery as a criterion for eligibility. Moreover, applying the IOC policy to collegiate sports does not take into account the eligibility limits placed on individual athletes or the age and developmental needs of this age group.
After a number of informal discussions with collegiate athletic leaders and transgender students who want to participate in sports, the National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project and the Women’s Sports Foundation initiative, It Takes A Team! joined forces to organize a national meeting on these topics in the fall. Two of the guiding principles for the discussion were 1) Participation in interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics is a valuable part of the education experience for all students and 2) Transgender student-athletes should have equal opportunity to participate in sports.
The 40 participants, including representatives from the NCAA and Interscholastic High School Athletic Association leaders, were an impressive group of experts from a range of disciplines — law, medicine, sports, advocacy, and athletics — all of whom share an interest in transgender issues. The goals were to identify best practices and develop model policies for high school and collegiate athletic leaders to ensure the full inclusion of transgender student-athletes. A report will be issued in 2010 outlining specific recommendations for high school and collegiate athletic programs.
Specific issues discussed included:
From a medical perspective, what are the salient factors that should be used to determine for which team (women’s or men’s) a transgender student is eligible to participate?
From a policy and school regulation perspective, how can we develop policies governing the participation of transgender students in athletics that adhere to state and federal laws protecting students from discrimination based on gender identity and expression?
From an athletic perspective, how can we address concerns about "competitive equity" or "unfair advantage" while acknowledging the broad diversity of performance already exhibited within both women’s and men’s sports?
From an education perspective, how can we ensure that athletic administrators, staff, parents of athletes and student-athletes have access to sound and effective education related to the participation of transgender students in athletics?
In our forthcoming report, we provide recommendations to address each of these questions.
The most powerful information came from the transgender student-athletes in attendance, who detailed their challenges and triumphs and the importance of high school and collegiate sport participation. Their stories reinforced the necessity of developing sound policies and practices that enable transgender student-athletes to play the sports they love in an environment where their gender identity and expression are accepted as one more aspect of the diversity typical of school and college sports teams.
Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll
Pat Griffin is director of It Takes A Team. Helen Carroll is director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project.