Sunday, July 09, 2006

Gender Stereotypes=Good Marketing at Colleges

The NYTimes today has a front page story, which is the first of a series on The New Gender Divide, analyzing why women are outperforming men in college and what colleges are doing or not doing to maintain gender parity. Interestingly, American University has done nothing, and therefore has tilted to a majority of female students. On the other hand, Dickinson College--one that I know well--has put a great deal of effort into recruiting more men and admitting more men (who may not be as qualified as the women) in the name of "diversity."

I have written before about the issue of admitting more unqualified men to college in the name of gender parity. I am not sure I have anything fresh to say about this piece, other than to reflect a bit on the strategy of Robert Massa, Vice President for Enrollment at Dickinson College.

Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment, began campaigning for more male students shortly after he arrived at Dickinson in 1999 and discovered that only 36 percent of the incoming freshmen were male and that the college had accepted 73 percent of the women who applied, but only 53 percent of the men.

Dickinson adapted to the growing female majority by starting a women's center, adding a women's studies major and offering courses on Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.

In his effort to attract men, Mr. Massa made sure that the admissions materials included plenty of pictures of young men and athletics. Dickinson began highlighting its new physics, computer science and math building, and started a program in international business. Most fundamental, Dickinson began accepting a larger proportion of its male applicants.

"The secret of getting some gender balance is that once men apply, you've got to admit them," Mr. Massa said. "So did we bend a little bit? Yeah, at the margin, we did, but not to the point that we would admit guys who couldn't do the work."

Longtime Dickinson administrators say that at isolated campuses with their own social worlds, gender balance is especially important.

"When there were fewer men, the environment was not as safe for women," said Joyce Bylander, associate provost. "When men were so highly prized that they could get away with things, some of them become sexual predators. It was an unhealthy atmosphere for women."

In education circles, Mr. Massa is sometimes accused of practicing unfair affirmative action for boys. He has a presentation called "What's Wrong With You Guys?" in which he says that Dickinson does not accept a greater proportion of male than female applicants, and that women still get more financial aid.

Where to start? First of all, I hope that the Times sort of screwed up the reporting here. I want to believe that what fuels Mr. Massa is not the fear that fewer men means more danger for women (as Bylander suggests), but rather a need to keep attracting those talented women, who want to come to a college with men they can date. If it is the former, then it is part and parcel of a persistent paternalism among college administrators that I cannot abide (in loco Patriarch!). I can just imagine the pitch to parents:

"Well, as you know, women are outperforming men in high school and therefore are admitted at higher rates to colleges and universities nationally. However, we find that when there is no gender parity, the men who are accepted behave badly to the female students, because, well they can. So, to fix this problem, we are launching a huge campaign to attract more male athletes to campus, with an eye to nurturing better relations between the sexes!"


While I don't doubt that fewer men means that those men can become bigger assholes because they are more prized, it seems like shoddy logic to admit more men to protect the fragile-hot-house-flower women. Are these women more vulnerable in Central Pennsylvania than they are at American University, which maintains gender-blind admissions?

I also find it depressing, which is different than being outraged, that Dickinson consciously features their Physics, Math and Computer Science Programs to attract more men. While it is surely the case that men are still more likely to major in these subjects than women are, it seems depressing to me that they are playing to that strength to get more men on campus, and thereby reinforcing unfortunate stereotypes that these subjects are better suited for men rather than women. I am equally depressed, btw, that Dickinson's response to a higher number of women was to start a Women's Studies minor, Women's Center and teach courses with Woolf or Jane Austen. Is it really true that faculty used the fact of higher female enrollment to justify these programs? No faculty were teaching courses on women's writers before the female enrollment boom? And, if that is true, does that mean the converse is true: namely, that all courses and programs one would find in colleges before women started outpacing men were designed to keep men's interest and attract men to the colleges? So anything pre-women's movement is a relic of a time when colleges competed solely for men's interest?

Finally, if Dickinson is truly concerned about the danger their young women face on campuses with fewer, and thereby highly prized men, then why does reinforcing gender stereotypes actually fix the problem? Do you really want to get more male athletes to improve gender relations on campus? I don't follow the thinking here at all.

What do the rest of you, my male and female readers, make of this new trend story, wherein men are suffering in schools, women are excelling and we think this is a bit of crisis? What is the best approach to better engaging male students?

Above all, is gender parity a "good" in itself?