InsideHigherEd.com reports today that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has commenced an "inquiry" into admissions standards that may be favoring male applicants who are increasingly underrepresented in the student bodies of many liberal arts colleges. The article suggests that the Commission (which does not have enforcement authority, only the power to make recommendations) may be using concern for female students as cover its real target, Title IX's application to men's sports. Colleges would not need to rely on discriminatory admissions standards if they could only attract more male applicants; they could do this by offering more athletic opportunities for them, but they are, sadly, hamstrung by Title IX.
This line of thinking is logically flawed, factually inaccurate, and steeped in stereotypes. First, no one is forcing colleges to lower their academic standards for male applicants. There is certainly no mandate that colleges admit men and women in equal numbers, just as there is no requirement that their student bodies are proportionate to the nation's racial demographics (imagine the uproar if that were so!) Colleges are afforded at least as much flexibility to consider sex in admissions as to consider race (the plus factor approach) and within constitutional limits, it is up to school how to incorporate academic standards and diversity into admissions decisions.
Second, Title IX is not the reason schools can't add men's sports -- the fact that men still have more athletic opportunities than women, both in absolute and relative terms, is the reason why schools can't add men's sports. Third, at least some colleges are adding men's sports -- we've blogged about it, see here, here, and here, e.g.! -- so even taking it out of the context of admissions, the suggestion that Title IX is preventing schools from expanding their men's athletic programs doesn't withstand scrutiny.
Fourth, the idea that colleges need to solve their admissions problem by adding sports for men operates from the annoyingly premise that it is more important to satisfy the athletic interests of men who are not, apparently, otherwise bound for college than it is to satisfy the women who are already there -- women are interested in sports too, and women have fewer athletic opportunities even though there are more of them in college!
Last, it sells men short; it suggests that they need to be tricked into applying to college by an admissions brochure with a lot of pictures of guys playing sports. To again use the race as an analogy, imagine the outrage if a government office expressed sympathy with colleges seeking to boost their racial diversity by adding athletic opportunities for minorities. Some would argue that such a plan exploits the minority student athletes and stigmatizes the minority student population in general by suggesting they otherwise would not be college bound. Some would argue that such a strategy provides clear evidence of the school's intent to promote athletics above academics. Others would argue that it's unfair to the white kids to limit their opportunities. All would be a little bit right.
It will be interesting to see what the Commission's inquiry reveals. Hopefully, it will steer clear of the misinformation and stereotypes discussed here.
UPDATE 11/3/09: More from today's Inside Higher Ed here; and Women's Sports Blog has a good take on it here.