In early 2019, conservative commentators converged on the idea that American universities are systematically discriminating against men.
An op-ed by Glenn Reynolds in USA Today blared: “Higher education discriminates against men, but Title IX complaints may change that.” The conservative group Campus Reform bolstered the narrative with a number of posts like this: “Harvard creates a ‘hostile environment against men,’ complaint says.” And AEI’s Mark Perry similarly wondered, “Will 2019 be the year that colleges and universities stop openly discriminating against men, 47 years after Title IX?”
Why are conservatives, who have been criticizing Title IX for years, suddenly so upbeat about this federal anti-discrimination law? Why are the discrimination skeptics now convinced they’ve found a genuine case of bias?
The story starts with a “Title IX complaint” against Cornell University, which was signed by a coalition of conservative academics (including Perry, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Jordan Peterson) and published by Campus Reform.
Its primary author, Kursat Christoff Pekgoz, a grad student at USC, “filed the complaint” with the Department of Justice (that is, he sent them an email) alleging anti-male discrimination at Cornell.
Pekgoz does not allege discrimination against him personally (he appears to have no connection to Cornell), but he wants the feds to investigate the school’s apparent practice of having programs exclusively for women.
The “complaint” (which is, literally, just a guy complaining — not a lawsuit or any kind of official legal document) consists of a long PDF filelisting:
- random conservative grievances (it has a “Prologue” about why the gender pay gap is a myth, how family court treats dads unfairly, and other irrelevant political claims);
- women’s stuff listed on Cornell’s website, including “spaces, scholarships, fellowships, initiatives, departments, programs, lectureships, committees, groups, and events,” that either exclude men or don’t explicitly include them.
I’m not an expert on Title IX, but some of the specific complaints might be valid. Generally, a college receiving federal funds can’t have programs for only one sex, unless they offer comparable and proportionally funded programs for the opposite sex (…“separate but equal,” you might say).
This sometimes leads to weird outcomes, like cutting less popular men’s sports teams to keep the overall athletics program gender balanced — a long-standing conservative grievance against Title IX.
It’s easy to see how conservatives got the idea to turn it around on progressives who promote women-only programs. But they are over-interpreting these anecdotes when they claim colleges have a generalized preference for women or that “higher education discriminates against men.”
Colleges Also Discriminate against Women/for Men
In fact, many colleges discriminate in favor of men and against women in undergraduate admissions.
This has been well documented, but it’s rarely discussed. It’s inconvenient both for liberals (who want to protect schools’ ability to shape their demographics using affirmative action) and conservatives (who want to portray men as victims of social justice and “equity” policies).
Gail Heriot, a conservative law professor and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), writes that male affirmative action is essentially an open secret in higher ed:
It is routine for many colleges and universities, particularly mid-level liberal arts schools, to discriminate against women in admissions.
Believing that they have “too many women,” these schools refuse admission to female applicants whose academic credentials would have been more than sufficient for a male applicant.
… “We are, after all, the College of William and Mary, not the College of Mary and Mary,” one state school admissions officer said.
The reason for this is that women are a sizable majority of college students — about 56% — and so schools that want a balanced sex ratio often need to put a thumb on the scales.
You can view this as affirmative action for men, or discrimination against female applicants, but they’re two sides of the same coin.
For some schools, including state colleges like William and Mary, sex discrimination in admissions violates Title IX. According to Heriot,
In the case of a state school or a private professional or graduate school that receives federal funds, such discrimination violates Title IX. But some do it anyway.
… For private colleges, Title IX is more lenient. It allows sex discrimination in admissions, but not once students are admitted.
This was intended to allow single-sex colleges to receive federal funding, but it also allows liberal arts schools that don’t want women to outnumber men by too much to have different admissions standards.
Admissions officers can be shockingly candid about this. In 2006, the dean of admissions for Kenyon College wrote an op-ed in the New York Times agonizing over the fact she uses harder standards for women.
The op-ed created a minor stir, but Heriot quotes a follow up report from Inside Higher Ed that concluded that, at the time, nobody in academia was shocked:
While few admissions officers wanted to talk publicly about the column, the private reaction was a mix of “of course male applicants get some help” along with “did she have to share that information with the world?”
A 2007 piece in U.S. News & World Report quoted an admissions officer at the University of Richmond casually revealing she worked under an explicit sex quota: “The board of trustees has said that the admissions office can go as far as 55–45 [women to men].”
Who Discriminates? And How Much?
We still know surprisingly little about how strong the preference for men is, or where it is most prevalent.
Data from 1996-2006.
Since overall enrollment is majority female, higher ed is hardly locking out girls altogether (nor could it, as many state schools have open admission rules). But it seems probable that some women are being knocked down a rung or two on their list of preferred schools because of discrimination at selective schools.
In the same 2007 piece, U.S. News published data showing that a number of small, second-tier liberal arts schools — such as Vassar, Wake Forest, and William & Mary — had significantly lower admissions rates for female applicants.
The Washington Post replicated the exercise again in 2014, finding that two-thirds of elite colleges had lower acceptance rates for women.
Neither source had the data to see if female applicants’ academic credentials were similarly skewed, but it doesn’t seem likely.
The College Board reports that girls taking the SAT have higher GPAs than boys (3.45 vs. 3.30), account for 60% of “A” students, and have higher grades in all subject areas. (This is in spite of the fact that more girls take the SAT to begin with.)
Girls are also a majority of top SAT scores (from 600–800) in writing (56%) and critical reading (51%), while boys hold a 55% majority of top math scores.
When Inside Higher Ed covered the Kenyon controversy in 2006, they also reported test scores on male and female applicants:
Female admitted students topped male applicants on the verbal portion of the SAT, 705 to 681, while men bested the women on the math section by a smaller margin, 675 to 665.
On net, women’s SAT scores needed to be 14 points higher than their male peers to get admitted. That might not sound like much, but it was significant enough to shave 7 points off the gender gap between the applicant pool and admitted students.
In 2005, the last year before the “verbal” section was split into writing and critical reading, the sex ratio of top verbal scores (from 650–800) was exactly 50/50. Yet, at Kenyon, the average female applicant had to beat a man’s verbal by 24 points to get in. (NB: Kenyon men did have higher math scores, but even their 10-point advantage was much smaller than 34-point national average for boys.)
Why Isn’t Anyone Talking about This?
Kenyon remains a useful example a more than decade later because we know for a fact that its statistical disparities were the result of deliberate sex discrimination. But to judge how widespread this practice is, we need hard data, not just anecdotes and quotes from administrators.
In 2009, USCCR tried to study possible sex discrimination in admissions at 18 mid-Atlantic universities. But 18 months later, newly appointed Democrats on the Commission suddenly voted to kill the study and bury the data. It hasn’t revisited the issue since.
Why aren’t feminist groups protesting or raising awareness about this? Heriot and her colleague Alison Somin suggest that they might be influenced by intersectional concerns that “undermining affirmative action for men will lead to the undermining of affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities.”
But if that’s so, it’s even more puzzling that other conservatives — including dedicated foes of affirmative action, like Glenn Reynolds and Mark Perry — instead cling to the narrative that colleges discriminate against men.
True, some policies and programs, on some campuses, may unfairly exclude men (though how many men actually feel wronged is not clear). But surely, discrimination in admission is at least as serious as discrimination within the university.
How Conservatives Learned to Love Affirmative Action
Heriot and Somin suggest some of the blame lies with a sort of male victimhood narrative on the right, seeded by books like Christina Hoff Sommer’s The War Against Boys, which argues that men are treated unfairly by the education system, starting at the earliest ages.
This narrative lays the responsibility for boys’ lower grades, higher dropout rates, and flat or declining educational attainment on “feminized education systems,” which supposedly cater to the ways that girls learn, while punishing normal boy behavior as “disruptive” and “disorganized.”
As a result, men are supposed to be underprivileged, underprepared, and therefore underrepresented in higher education… and so, in the words of conservative pundit Mona Charon, “boys now need the extra help” to get into selective schools.
Heriot and Somin quote Charon blasting USCCR’s attempt in 2009 to study sex discrimination in admissions:
We seem to have a problem here. For every 100 women who earn a college degree, only 73 men do. These statistics practically shout “boy crisis.” Yet the Civil Rights Commission apparently sees the problem as one of discrimination.
Let’s suppose the commission finds the discrimination it is seeking (which won’t be hard). … Will women be happier at campuses in which men comprise only 35 or 40 percent of the student population?
Will our society be better off with women outpacing men in education and income? Or might it be better to address the flagging achievement of boys in our school system?
This is, word for word, the progressive argument for racial affirmative action, repeated with a straight face by a conservative who would never accept this logic when it comes to race preferences.
Other progressive tropes are also being recycled by conservatives to allege discrimination against men, such as the assertion that inequality of outcomes is proof of bias and discrimination in the process.
The complaint against Cornell — co-signed by Mark Perry, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Jordan Peterson — makes this spurious claim explicitly:
The education system in America is especially biased against men. 77% of all teachers in the public education system are women. Girls have higher grades than boys in all categories.
… Women are the overrepresented sex among college students nationwide. They are also the majority of law students and medical students.
… Women are the majority of students at Cornell University [52%] and they are also the majority of the Cornell professoriate [52.1%].
Really? A profession dominated by one sex is proof of bias? Gaps in average grades are evidence of discrimination? The fact a group is “over” or “under” represented relative their share of the population means they’re being treated unfairly?
In his own post about the Cornell complaint, Perry doubles down on the argument that “men are a significantly underrepresented minority”:
Women in 2017 earned 155 associate’s degrees for every 100 men, 134 bachelor’s degrees for every 100 men, 146 master’s degrees for every 100 men, and 114 doctoral degrees for every 100 men. …
Higher education is still acting as if women still need attention, resources, scholarships, funding, fellowships, initiatives, clubs, camps, commissions, study spaces, conferences, and awards that aren’t available to men, with no concern at all about the under-represented minority.
He concludes that it’s time to use Title IX to put a stop to the “ongoing gender favoritism and special treatment […] in higher education.”
He might be right about that — but it’s not going to work out the way he thinks. That’s the risk you run when you try to play both sides of the net, as Perry, Pekgoz, and Sommers are doing with discrimination.
Is Affirmative Action for Men so Bad?
The deeper question here is whether it’s okay for colleges to discriminate. The law suggests we’re conflicted on this point. State schools can’t discriminate based on sex — period — but while private colleges can’t discriminate against students, most can discriminate against applicants. That carve out was made for single-sex schools, but it allows for any degree of sex preference.
In the past, administrators have argued that students want a relatively balanced sex ratio, both for academic diversity and for their social life. And that sounds plausible. When I visited Grove City College (a Christian liberal arts school at the top of the U.S. News list of acceptance disparities) several years ago, the dean bragged about how many of their alumni have married each other, and they were quite open about maintaining a balanced sex ratio for that reason.
The opportunity to date and marry is clearly part of the appeal of college for many students, and gender diversity on campus can’t help but affect that.
So should we just accept that some colleges will discriminate against women in admissions in order to offer a better campus experience for both sexes? Maybe, but it won’t be easy for anyone to say so.
Progressives don’t like it because it would validate discrimination against a historically marginalized group. Conservatives don’t like it because it would imply that schools could also have justifiable preferences for other kinds of diversity, like Harvard’s “race-conscious admissions” policy, or for gender diversity in other contexts, like within departments or companies — as in the initiatives denounced by conservatives at Cornell and Google.
Either way, no side quite gets out of the issue with their ideological assumptions quite intact. But precisely for that reason, both should try to engage with it.