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Perspectives: Affirmative Action May be Needed — for Men

When the Arizona Republic announced its support for the anti-affirmative action Proposition 107 last week, it declared in its opinion editorial headline: “Affirmative Action is No Longer Needed.”  On Election Day, voters in Arizona will vote on Proposition 107, the so-called Arizona Civil Rights Initiative, which will amend Article II of the state constitution.  The language of the initiative reads, in part:


“This state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”


This is a creature of Ward Connerly, the former University of California Regent who spearheaded Proposition 209 that ended affirmative action in that state. Similar anti-affirmative action initiatives were passed in Washington State, Michigan and Nebraska.

Ward Connerly and his cohorts in Arizona need to think carefully about the unintended consequences of their initiative: it may harm men.  With the declining number of men entering college and graduate programs, affirmative action may be needed for them in the future.  In fact, men have benefited from affirmative action in higher education admissions for several years.

Women are the majority of students in colleges and universities and some professional schools both in the U.S. and Canada. Canada’s Globe and Mail reported that the chair of McMasters University Medical School responded to the percentage of women enrolled in the 2002 entering class (76.3 percent) by “rethinking” the admissions criteria.  He found that the emphasis on grades and scores led to the overrepresentation of women at the medical school. In response, nonquantitative factors were added such as “community service.” As a result, the percentage of men enrolled “slightly” increased. In francophone Quebec, women are 70 percent of students in medical school.

This academic gender imbalance is reportedly a cause for alarm because it could lead to a labor shortage. Women doctors are more likely to work part time to care for their children, they argue, and may avoid certain specialties including surgery in order to balance the demands of work and family.  Thus, some form of affirmative action is needed to achieve a gender balance, according to our Canadian colleagues.

In the U.S., women increasingly form the majority of enrollments at colleges and universities. This phenomenon began to appear in liberal arts colleges and is now seen in flagship public colleges and universities.  In response, admissions officers are addressing the gender imbalance with a subtle form of affirmative action for men.  The dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College wrote in the New York Times:

The reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants. Today, two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women. Demographers predict that by 2009, only 42 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in the United States will be given to men.

What irony.  As Dean Jennifer Delahunty Britz explained in her editorial, when women were told that “the world was their oyster,” so many believed them that now the admissions standards for women are now stiffer then they are for men.  (Emphasis added.)  The arguments for gender balance include the suggestion that men – and women, will avoid a college that is majority female and that “If you have a dance, you have to have enough folks to dance with.”

A woman sued the University of Georgia in 1999 for using an admissions formula that gave extra points for being a male and/or a minority. The lower court found the process of awarding points for gender violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. At UGA, being a male was worth 0.25 points.  Before a decision was reached by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals however, the university rescinded the gender admissions criterion.

In Gender Equity in Higher Education: 2010, a report published by the American Council on Education, the distribution of enrollment and undergraduate degree attainment of women and men in USA colleges and universities has stabilized since 2000, with men constituting 43 percent of enrollment and bachelor’s degrees.  Women now earn as many professional and doctoral degrees as men and earn the majority of master’s degrees, except in engineering and business administration. The authors of the report suggest that the gender gap between women and men may be “the new normal.”

So, what happens if the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative or other such measures are passed?  At Arizona public colleges and universities women’s enrollment consistently exceeds that of men.  At Arizona State University at Tempe, 51.7 percent of the student body is female; at the University of Arizona, 53.1 percent are female; at Northern Arizona University, 60.1 percent of undergraduates are female, and at Arizona State University, West Campus, 65.2 percent are female. If admissions officers at these public institutions wanted to “soften” the criteria to achieve more gender balance (and who is to say that they are not doing this already?) Proposition 107 would prohibit them from using such “preferential treatment.”  The same arguments that the Arizona Republic used to pan race- or gender-based affirmative action for women could be used against the effort for male-female gender balance:

Instead of creating a level playing field, they skew the game. Qualifications are subordinated to minority or gender status— certainly not the fair play that Americans value.

The editors at the Arizona Republic said:

Affirmative action can raise unjust doubts about genuine achievements. Connerly tells how the African-American pilot of a commercial airliner thought he saw fear in the eyes of passengers, who wondered if he was truly qualified for the job.

Discrimination hasn’t disappeared in America. But we have legal tools, including the authority of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to deal with it directly.

Perhaps in Canada or at U.S. universities we should fear having a male doctor or teacher or pilot.  Are his achievements genuine?  Is he truly qualified for the job?  Are we safe?  If a White male wants to attend an Arizona public university and cannot compete with women applicants, he should complain to the U.S. Department of Education.  Right?  The Arizona Republic’s “Let them eat cake” treatment of a centuries-old problem can be used for White men who have enjoyed preferential treatment for as long as Blacks, Hispanics and women have suffered discrimination.

I submit that these anti-affirmative action votes may be used against colleges and universities when they attempt to take affirmative action on behalf of men. I also predict that as the demographic changes continue, with Latinos and other minorities constituting a growing majority, the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative may present a barrier to those who, in the future, will compose part of the non-Hispanic minority, i.e. White men. Thus, the Arizona Republic should be careful what it wishes for, i.e., an end to affirmative action.  To use a worn-out phrase, “you might just get it.”

Shirley J. Wilcher is executive director, American Association for Affirmative Action. 

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