Obama, Title IX, and Academics?

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WASHINGTON--The White House has quietly shot down an attempt by two senior officials, one a confidante of the president himself, to expand so-called gender parity beyond college athletics to courses in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.

A proposal to apply so-called Title IX gender-equality to selection of courses and possibly even major subjects was discussed at a White House conference on June 23. It was endorsed by Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President, and Ms. Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights.

While that conference was construed in some quarters as indicating that gender parity was an emerging administration policy, inquiry at the White House and the Education Department elicited ambiguous replies. At this writing, it appears that the administration is not planning to use proportionality requirements for math and science, although it reserves the right to do so in future.

Title IX, passed in 1972 as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has been interpreted to mean that universities accepting federal funds for any purpose-and almost all receive research funding-cannot have more male athletes than female, even though more men than women generally want to play sports.

The result is that many collegiate men have not been able to participate in intercollegiate athletics, and many men's teams have been terminated. For example, to satisfy Title IX parity the University of California at Los Angeles terminated its men's swimming and diving teams, which may diminish our country's opportunity to win Olympic medals.

Title IX was intended to protect against sex discrimination, but not to allow the use of quotas. Indeed, it specifically prohibited arbitrary leveling of student numbers by gender.

Yet in 1997 the courts essentially sided with an interpretation of the law promulgated by the Department of Education that left universities with no choice but to adopt a proportionality standard for college sports if they wished to avoid lawsuits. If 40% of the students are female, then 40% of the varsity sports slots have to go to women.

At the White House conference on June 23, Ms. Ali said that the administration has the goal of making science and math classes 50% female. "We expect to see gender parity," she declared.

However, in a telephone conversation yesterday she told me that although the administration will extend Title IX to math and science, it does not intend to argue for proportionality "at this point," leaving open the possibility that it might be used later. She explained that college athletics were a special case because male and female programs were segregated, whereas math and science classes are open to all.

Instead, issuing no new formal regulations and using "somewhat new enforcement," Ms. Ali said, the administration will make sure that secondary schools and universities do not discriminate against girls and women when it comes to selection of courses and majors. She cited anecdotal evidence that some girls and women are counseled against taking courses in math and science.

In 2006 women earned 20% of the bachelor's degrees in engineering and 27% in math and computer science. But there's no evidence that women who wanted to major in science were turned away-or are now. Anyone who wants to major in science can do so. It's possible that some girls and women who are counseled against majoring in math and science lack the skills to do well in the field.

In fact, women have an advantage over men in getting tenure-track academic positions. Between 1999 and 2003, according to the National Academy of Sciences, women represented 11% of tenure track job applicants in electrical engineering, but received 32% of the job offers. In physics, 12% of the applicants were female, but women received 20% of the job offers.

Women have chosen to break into many previously male-dominated fields. Whereas in 1974 only 15% of women received law degrees and 13% received medical degrees, today women receive about half of each. The rising ratios resulted from choices by women to be doctors and lawyers, so there's no reason they cannot also choose to be physicists and chemists. Women's choices of non-science majors indicate preference, not discrimination.

Students from across America and around the world enroll in American universities to study. They come because they want to learn, to advance their careers, to pursue their dreams. American universities have long hailed academic freedom for both students and faculty as a hallmark not only of education but of American society.

It's wise that the administration has backed off its plan to tell students that they may not study this or that because of gender, and it should consider changing the policy that has resulted in the closure of male sports teams.

For generations, brilliant students and great scientists, American and foreign, have studied at American universities. But no collection of Nobel Laureates can calculate the harm to American education that the misapplication of Title IX would bring.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

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