Are Admissions Preferences for Men OK?

As The Chronicle noted in a short article yesterday, The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has abandoned an investigation into whether colleges are discriminating against women in admissions. The move to scrap the investigation, because of incomplete data, was sponsored by a Democrat, Commissioner Dina Titus, and decried by a conservative Independent, commissioner Gail Heriot.

What’s going on? Why are the Democrats, who would normally champion efforts to investigate discrimination against women, suspicious of the effort and conservatives supportive? The issue of gender discrimination in admissions is complicated by two related issues: legal requirement for gender equality in athletics and affirmative action for underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities.

There has long been concern that some liberal arts colleges routinely provide admissions preferences for men in order to avoid large gender imbalances in their student bodies. Some argue that once a school becomes more than 60 percent female, it becomes unattractive to many  potential applicants, male or female.

The issue gained prominence in 2006 when a Kenyon College admissions officer wrote an op-ed in the New York Times openly acknowledging that “the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.” For example, according to the Washington Post, the College of William & Mary admitted 43 percent of male applicants in the fall of 2008 and 29 percent of female applicants. An admissions officer told U.S. News & World Report: “It’s not the College of Mary and Mary; it’s the College of William and Mary.” Canadian medical schools, likewise, have recently raised concerns about educating too many women to become doctors. While many suggest that white women are the primarily beneficiaries of affirmative action, in most undergraduate admissions, precisely the opposite is true.

In 2009, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission began investigating 19 colleges, mostly in the Washington D.C. area, including Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and Howard. Women’s groups, however, weren’t thrilled by the investigation because the Civil Rights Commission’s proposal suggested that a provision in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 relating to gender equity in sports was a problem. The proposal suggested that if colleges could add more sports for men, they would be more attractive to male applicants and need not engage in discrimination in admissions. Leslie Brueckner, a lawyer with Public Justice, rejected the line of thinking which suggested we should “stop schools from discriminating in admissions by permitting them to discriminate in athletics,” arguing, “Two wrongs do not make a right.”

The issue of gender discrimination also raises awkward questions for supporters of affirmative action. The original moral basis of affirmative action (as opposed to the more utilitarian concept of diversity) derives from the notion that because of the legacy of discrimination, African-American and Latino students deserve a leg up in order to have greater representation. The case of preferences for men—hardly an historically oppressed group—muddies the waters, and underlines the fact that imbalances can result from issues unrelated to discrimination.

Some might retort that colleges aren’t in the business of providing “fairness” in admissions. After all, it’s harder to get into some colleges if you’re from New Jersey than if you’re from Montana. The difference, however, is that at public institutions, at least, our democratic representatives have decided that discrimination on the basis of an immutable factor like gender should be illegal. Gender discrimination, they said, is wrong in athletics, and it is wrong in admissions. Where is the voice for that notion today?

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