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Purdue president missteps in comments on ‘missing’ college men

This academic year has seen a flurry of news articles about the widening gender gap on college campuses, with women now outnumbering men by about three to two.

These articles apparently caught the attention of Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, who sandwiched a discussion about them somewhere between COVID-19 numbers and innovation plans in his annual winter letter to “the people” of Purdue.

“Assuming one agrees that this is a problem, Purdue is playing a part in addressing it,” Daniels wrote in his letter. “Our historic average of about 57 percent men in the undergraduate population has held remarkably steady, even as many other schools saw that share drop to the low 40’s or even lower. There is no behind this against the trend position, and no mystery about the reasons. Young men and women select into various disciplines at very different rates, and the STEM subjects which are relatively predominant at Purdue tend to attract men.”

Daniels’s attempt at joining the gender gap conversation landed with a thud. Some 1,200 engineering professors, students and alumni, plus supporters in other fields, have since signed a letter opposing Daniels’s “disheartening” take on the long-term underenrollment of women in engineering.

The letter, first signed by 58 female Purdue professors of engineering, doesn’t question Daniels’s right to discuss the problem of missing college men. Rather, the focus is on how Daniels discusses it—saying that Purdue’s 57 percent male undergraduate population, driven by in large part by its 74 percent male engineering student population, is helping “address” the assumed problem.

“Female students in their classes look around at their classmates and do not see many women—they are clearly a minority, and yet a strong focus of your open letter was focused on recruitment of male students,” the engineering faculty letter says. “Your message is heart-wrenching for women in STEM because it shows that you clearly do not understand their experiences.”

‘Let’s Look at the Numbers’

The faculty letter further criticizes Daniels, who has led engineering-heavy Purdue for nine years, for getting the facts about women in engineering wrong.

First, here’s a bit more of what Daniels said:

“We have, and will extend, a host of programs to recruit more women into these disciplines. As one example, our 26 percent female share of engineering students is one of the nation’s highest. (I have sometimes observed that no one ever writes to express concern that we need more men in our 87 percent female veterinary medicine college, or our 89 percent female nursing department, or our 64 percent female college of pharmacy.) Purdue cannot solve this looming national problem, but sending out thousands of exceptional young engineers, computer scientists, and other technology experts who happen to be men is a contribution. Few other institutions are making.”

Regarding Daniels’s “nation’s highest” statement, the faculty letter says this, citing data from the American Society for Engineering Education: “Let’s look at the numbers. Purdue’s 26 percent ‘share’ of women in engineering is barely above the national average of 24 percent, nowhere near the ‘nation’s highest’ and far behind many of our aspirational peers (MIT: 46 percent; CalTech: 43 percent; Stanford: 40 percent ).”

Public institution peers such as Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, also surpass Purdue in percentages, with women comprising about one-third of their engineering student bodies, the letter continues. “This is not a reflection of poor programs here; It is more a reflection of the poor institutional commitment by Purdue to increasing the numbers of women in STEM.”

The letters acknowledges that Purdue, by virtue of its size, is one of the nation’s largest producers of female engineering graduates. But it suggests that something closer to on-campus parity could be achieved by learning from research on “male-favoring” criteria in admissions decisions, and from more support for Purdue’s 50-some-year-old Women in Engineering program, which has as an example for similar programs elsewhere, and which has raised a majority of its own funds. Even fully funding programs like that one “won’t solve the gender problems in undergraduate admissions, graduate admissions, faculty hiring, faculty retention, the overall climate and culture of engineering, and more broadly, at Purdue,” however, the letter says.

As for Daniels’s comment that no one ever complains there are too few men in fields such as nursing, the letter cites further research suggesting that women are overrepresented in lower-paying fields, and that even in these “feminized” fields, men are favored for promotion and overrepresented in higher-paying subfields. (Women in male-dominated fields, meanwhile, face a documented “glass ceiling,” as opposed to a “glass escalator.”)

‘You Missed the Opportunity’

“We feel that, unfortunately, you missed the opportunity to articulate a value proposition for higher education for both men and women as well as those who identify as LGBTQ+,” the letter says. “Let’s do the work to understand what is limiting the growth of all groups and their ability to contribute. Let’s do that work alongside doing work to understand female underrepresentation. We suspect root causes of these phenomena across the whole gender spectrum are strongly related to social norms propagated through advertising and false expectations of people fulfilling roles based on gender and other characteristics. This limited vision of society needs to stop, and Purdue should take a leadership role in making sure that this happens.”

Several days after Daniels sent his letter asking where are the men are, the university’s student newspaper, the Purdue Exponent, offered its own response: an article titled “Where Are All the Women?” The newspaper also published a staff editorial telling Daniels that “gender inequality doesn’t work that way.”

“Daniels is patting himself on the back for the 26 percent female STEM population at Purdue instead of providing resources to increase female inclusion in a male-dominated field,” the editorial says, echoing parts of the faculty letter. “What he fails to recognize is that fewer women enrolling in most STEM programs and fewer men enrolling in nursing and veterinary sciences are two sides of the same coin: the enforcement of social expectations of careers based on gender roles. Perhaps not coincidentally, the traditional ‘women’s jobs’ are among the most underpaid, and the few men who are employed in female-dominated jobs are often paid more and promoted faster.”

Students with the Purdue Society of Women Engineers also organized a march protesting Daniels’s letter. Some 100 students and faculty members participated.

Alice Pawley, a professor of engineering education who helped organize the faculty letter, said that if Daniels wanted to have a meaningful conversation about gender in education, he could have consulted any number of experts at Purdue.

“We have scholars on this campus who study gender in STEM education,” Pawley said. “We have a nationally respected Women in Engineering program, like the first in the country. We have a [National Science Foundation] grant that focuses on women in STEM faculty positions. We have a huge data analyst’s office. We have folks who study gender in the workforce, like in sociology, right? We have people in nursing education. All of these people could have given him advice, had he solicited it, about the so-called problem that he identified in this piece.”

Instead, she said, Daniels “speaks for the campus, suggesting that we’re doing a great job keeping up the side for men in higher education by having 57 percent of the undergraduate population be men. That’s just bias. That’s not a feature that we should be celebrating.”

Pawley said the faculty letter was sent to a number of administrators, including Daniels, and that the original signatories have heard nothing weeks later.

Matthew Ohland, Dale and Suzi Gallagher Professor in Engineering Education, said he signed the letter after the first 58 female professors because Purdue does “a lot of good things, and we do them at scale. But, you know, I do not celebrate that some of those things come at the expense of making this a place where women feel like they belong.”

The “bigger concern” about Daniels’s letter is the “effect that it has on students,” Ohland continued.

Through the University Senate, Ohland sent this question to Daniels: “What positive actions will you take to counteract the negative effect that your recent and widely read ‘where are all the men?’ comments are likely to have on our efforts to recruit women faculty and students to Purdue’s STEM disciplines?”

Ohland hasn’t heard anything back yet, even though the Daniels’s administration answered a number of other questions sent through the Senate at the same late -January meeting.

Purdue in a statement Wednesday said that Daniels’s letter makes clear, as noted by news media, that “men are attending and graduating from college at lower rates, which nobody would view as a good thing. Again, the letter points out that Purdue is not part of that problem. Women are making progress in STEM fields, and that progress is, as President Daniels noted, ‘overdue.’ At Purdue we invest in recruiting and supporting women in STEM, and, again, as the letter says, we’ll continue to expand those programs.”

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