DOE investigates professor's claim U-M discriminates against men

Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 6:37pm

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Sherry Chen

The federal Department of Education is investigating a complaint alleging the University of Michigan discriminates against men. Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at University of Michigan-Flint filed the complaint in May, challenging 11 different University programs, initiatives, organizations and scholarships at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Perry cites groups such as Girls in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the Och Initiative for Women in Finance and the Barbour Scholarship, claiming they violate the University’s Nondiscrimination Policy, Title IX and the state of Michigan Constitution.

Pamela Heatlie, former director of the Office for Institutional Equity, closed the investigation into Perry’s complaint within a month, explaining the programs oriented towards women did not violate any policies or state law.

Following Heatlie’s response, Perry filed a complaint to the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights in June. On Jan. 24, the DOE responded, recognizing Perry’s claims.

“Because OCR has determined that it has jurisdiction and that the complaint was filed timely, it is opening the complaint for investigation,” the letter reads.

Perry explained in an email to The Daily the OCR will investigate several claims against the University. They will investigate not only whether the University responded appropriately to the complaint and within a timely manner, but also whether the University excludes individuals from participating in programs, employment, activities or scholarships on the basis of gender.

“(B)ased on my understanding, part of that process (OIE’s Investigation) is that the university has a legal obligation to provide the complainant employee with: a) a detailed rationale if his or her complaint is dismissed and b) the employee’s legal rights to appeal the decision if the employee’s complaint is dismissed,” Perry wrote. “I was provided with neither of those legally required responses.”

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said she is unable to comment on the investigation because the University has not yet received the official notice of the complaint from the OCR.

Civil rights lawyer Deborah Gordon who has been handling gender discrimination cases at the University for over 40 years — before Title IX was even introduced — said the DOE investigation does not pose a significant threat to any of the programs Perry targets.

“The DOE looks at any properly worded complaint,” Gordon said. “My gut reaction is there’s not much there.”

OCR’s investigation centers on Section 681 of the Title IX Education Amendments of 1972.

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” the federal civil rights law states.

Perry wrote that he believes the investigation could change a lot of programs at the University and will challenge 50 different programs. He wrote he believes the investigation could lead to a gender-blind, gender-neutral and gender-inclusive environment at the University.

“Hopefully we’re heading in a positive direction of greater gender equality in higher education, and an end to the systematic, open and ongoing practices of gender discrimination against an underrepresent (sic) minority group,” Perry wrote regarding the representation of men in institutions like the University.

Perry said he believes the University is not as diverse or open-minded as it presents itself to be.

“UM currently says that is theoretically very dedicated to ‘diversity, equity and inclusion,’’ Perry wrote. “But in reality, it frequently practices ‘gender uniformity (single-gender, female-only, no males allowed programs), gender inequity (gender favoritism for females), and gender exclusion (no men allowed).’ And that’s the motivation for my Title IX complaint.”

Perry explained he wants the University to either eliminate the programs for women, convert them into gender-neutral programs or make alternative programs for men.

In his complaint, Perry specifically mentions Women in Science and Engineering, a residential program on the third floor of Mosher-Jordan Hall. The University designed the program to provide support for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program is open to all genders, but markets itself towards women specifically, not only through its name but with a disclaimer on its website.

“The University of Michigan WISE Program is designed to increase the number of girls and women pursuing degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics while fostering their future success,” the website states.

Engineering junior Allison Candell, a former mentor in WISE, said WISE is open to men and would not reject a male applicant solely based on gender, though the program is really designed to help women in STEM.

“As a part of my time at WISE, I was on the recruitment team,” Candell said. “I would give tours to people. There are places within the dorm that men could stay, but I don’t think there has ever been a boy in WISE. We don’t discriminate, but it is more beneficial for women because there are less women here (in STEM). Having that support network changes everything when you’re in engineering.”

Gordon said legally she is not sure how Perry will be able to support his claims.

“He’s got a solution, but there’s no problem,” Gordon said. “In order to have a case you have to have a plaintiff, somebody who says they were deprived of something. As far as I can tell it’s just him.”

Gordon says there is no real reason for programs like WISE to be forced to change their names by legal authority.

“It’s laughable,” Gordon said. “There’s nothing in the law that calls for that.”

Perry’s claim also targets scholarships and awards for women. Gordon said University-funded scholarship specifically for women could be illegal, but if they are the result of donors it is difficult for the University to control the parameters of the scholarship.

“How is U-M on the hook for that?” Gordon said. “My guess is if the scholarships are funded by outside donors, the donors have a specific agenda for their money.”

Ultimately, Perry claims men are underrepresented in higher education.

“Men have been an underrepresented minority in higher education for 40 years now… and women have been the majority gender since 1979,” Perry wrote.  “And yet we’re still maybe stuck back in the 1960s or 1970s with outdated thinking that women (the overrepresented majority) still need special treatment and special preferences (often illegal or in violation of Title IX) in the form of segregated study spaces, female only summer camps, programs and clubs, and special funding, scholarships, fellowships, initiatives and awards, etc. (often illegal) that aren’t available for the underrepresented minority gender.”

In the chart, Perry uses data collected from the University’s website to show how women make up the majority in some programs at the University. These programs include Nursing, Music, Theatre & Dance, Social Work and Art & Design. In these programs, women make up about 80 percent of the population. However, many of the programs Perry targets in his complaint are within STEM — a program where women are the minority.

Unlike the programs Perry lists at the top of his chart, in STEM women make up about 25 to 26 percent of the population. According to a Diversity, Inclusion and Equity report from 2018, at the University overall, women make up about half the population.

Ultimately, Gordon says she wishes Perry would put his efforts into a better cause.

“I’ve been critical with the University and I would like to see the University do better regarding the sexual misconduct policy, but I just don’t see a need for this,” Gordon said. “Just look at the history of women at the University of Michigan. Women were once kept out of higher education. I went to U-M in the 60s and 70s. I had a curfew and men did not. There has been a long history of institutional discrimination against women in higher education that has only started to get better. I think Mr. Perry should find better things to do with his time.”

While one of the primary issues Perry finds with programs like WISE or GEECS have to do with their name or presentation, Candell said if WISE changed its name to become more gender-neutral it would lose a lot of its purpose.

“As part of WISE we have to take a class and we talk about the imposter syndrome,” Candell said. “When asked if they had experienced it, everyone raised their hand. There are some issues that are more uniquely feminine. It’s difficult to explain. There could be a concurrent program (for men), but I think there’s something powerful about having something just for women.”

Another member of WISE, LSA sophomore Sania Farooq said WISE has helped her build a support system.

“Communities like WISE are great for finding support,” Farooq said. “Being able to see people from different perspectives is something that the STEM culture still needs to work on.”

While Perry did not receive a positive response from the University upon his initial request, Perry said success with allegations of gender discrimination at universities like Tulane University and the University of Minnesota indicates the University of Michigan will likely be forced to comply.

At Tulane, after a complaint was made regarding financial aid and programs oriented towards women, Tulane University was forced to come to a resolution agreement with the OCR.

Similarly, Perry found success with his efforts against female-oriented programs and scholarships at the University of Minnesota and is continuing to eliminate programs for women at the University of Minnesota.

“(L)ast fall, I successfully resolved an internal Title IX complaint against the University of Minnesota for some student awards and scholarships that were for 'woman oriented' students only,” Perry went on to write, “I would also see that outcome at the University of Minnesota as a legal precedent for my complaints of similar Title IX violations at UM, and the OCR is aware of the Minnesota outcome.”