Should outnumbered men feel uncomfortable on university campuses?
That’s a highly charged question hanging over Texas after remarks last week by the state’s commissioner of higher education. The commissioner, Raymund Paredes, commented on the fact that some campuses in Texas have student bodies that are 60 per cent female and 40 per cent male.
“We’ve been told by some presidents that we’re getting to the point where males feel uncomfortable on college campuses, on some college campuses,” Dr Paredes said.
To many, the comments, made at a University of Houston Board of Regents meeting and first reported in the Houston Chronicle, came off as tone-deaf in light of the broader discussion currently taking place about gender, abuse and power dynamics in higher education and society. Within higher education alone, recent headlines have centred on allegations that professors holding positions of power sexually harassed or preyed upon women. Some critics also point out that women are underrepresented in top jobs at universities and that they do not earn equal wages to men in the workplace. That's not to mention other aspects of campus atmosphere that hardly seem to indicate women holding all the power – the fact that the higher education institution most revered by many in Texas is football, and that fraternities play a powerful role in the social life of many campuses.
Against that backdrop, it can be argued that women are the ones with cause to feel uncomfortable on college campuses – not men.
Dr Paredes said, however, that his comments have merit when taken in context. He had been speaking about the issue of enrolling and graduating male students from minority groups, an area where colleges and universities in the diverse – and quickly further diversifying – state of Texas have struggled. When Dr Paredes spoke about men feeling uncomfortable, he had just said the state was behind in graduating African-American and Latino men. Texas has a lot of work ahead of it to bring up participation among economically disadvantaged groups, he said.
Dr Paredes declined during a telephone interview to share which college presidents have told him men are feeling uncomfortable on their campuses. But he reiterated that he was referring to groups of students that are financially at risk or less prepared for college than others.
“They are obviously going to feel uncomfortable if they don’t see many people like themselves on a university campus,” Dr Paredes said. “I didn’t mean to suggest that we were at a crisis point, but I meant to suggest that a lot of people think we’re getting there.”
Asked more specifically about whether white men are also feeling uncomfortable, Dr Paredes said that white male participation and completion rates are lower than rates for white women.
“We have a challenge in terms of the participation of males,” he said. “I think most of us want to have participation at levels that mirror their presence in the overall population, and I think most of us would be very concerned if any group – African-American, Latino, white – if their participation rates in any important societal function were much lower than their actual presence in the overall population.”
Some retort that gender parity or gender equity can’t be measured solely by the number of students enrolled and the number of degrees granted.
“We should be cheering that more women are completing higher education, but they are still being dealt a fairly unlevel playing field,” said Anne Hedgepeth, interim vice-president of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women. “Look not just at student populations but also at who is teaching classes, who is in higher ed administration, who are the provosts and on the boards that control higher education. Who is in political power, governors especially?”
The governor of Texas and the state’s top legislative leaders are all men. So are 121 of 150 members of the state House of Representatives and 23 of 31 members of the state Senate. Men make up a significant majority on a list of public university leaders kept by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
That’s not the situation only in Texas. By and large, power structures with the most influence on colleges and universities remain predominantly male, Ms Hedgepeth said.
Men in Texas carry comparatively less debt then women upon graduating. Student loan debt as a percentage of first-year wages for students graduating with four-year degrees totalled 67 per cent for men and 77 per cent for women, according to the Texas Higher Education Almanac. For those graduating with two-year degrees, it totalled 34 per cent for men and 42 per cent for women.
Other statistics show men lagging when it comes to degree completion. Men are less likely than women to graduate from high school, enrol in higher education or receive a higher education degree.
Men are roughly half of the Texas population. But men were only 43.6 percent of the state’s 1.65 million students enrolled in higher education in 2016. They represent about 42 percent of the state’s degree completions.
The gender breakdown on Texas campuses varies significantly. Some campuses, including the main campuses for Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University, enrol more male undergraduates than women. Others skew far in the other direction.
Even with that complex set of data, some worry about the nuanced views that could be lost in the rush for gender parity.
“I’m just concerned that some of the complexity is getting flattened out of the picture,” said Susan Heinzelman, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “It irks me so much, because I think of the university as a place where complexity is nourished and celebrated. If that’s getting flattened here, good luck with the rest of the culture.”
Professor Heinzelman was one of several experts who agreed that the debate about men feeling comfortable on campus depends on which men are being discussed. Students from historically underrepresented populations who feel uncomfortable could be seeing many universities as white, elitist, unfriendly places. Men studying subjects like engineering, where they dominate in number, but feeling uncomfortable about the number of women on campus, would be a different question.
At some level, the issues involved should make students with advantages feel uncomfortable, Professor Heinzelman said.
“I’m all in favour of making people uncomfortable,” she said. “Not threatened – but calling attention to the world in which they live and have privilege.”
This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.