Soon-to-Be Open Secret

A federal investigation into admissions preferences for men will expose a serious problem, and raise the question of why college leaders won't talk about it, writes Richard Whitmire.

December 22, 2009

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.


Richard Whitmire is the author of a new book, Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind, and he writes about the issue at his blog Why Boys Fail.


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