The Magazine

The Math and Science of Quotas

Title IX is alive and well in the Bush Education Department.

Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By JESSICA GAVORA
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CHANCES ARE, IF YOU'VE heard of Title IX, it is in the context of collegiate athletics, where the law is best known today for strict gender quotas that destroy men's sports like wrestling, under the guise of expanding opportunity for women. But Title IX is in fact a sweeping law that applies to virtually every aspect of education. And since the law was enacted in the early seventies, feminist groups have been pushing for greater enforcement--including gender quotas--beyond athletics, especially in the target-rich, male-dominated fields of math and science.

A couple weeks ago they got their wish--for a few days at least.

On March 25, National Journal reported that the Bush administration planned an unprecedented expansion of Title IX enforcement into the math and science departments of the nation's leading research universities. In interviews with several publications, Assistant Secretary of Education Stephanie Monroe announced that the Department of Education would be teaming up with the National Science Foundation to investigate the sex disparities in hard sciences--particularly engineering, physics, and computer science--that got former Harvard University president Larry Summers into so much trouble when he broached the subject in an academic meeting last year.

Monroe said that, beginning this summer, Education's Office of Civil Rights--which she heads--would conduct intensive investigations of colleges and universities to determine if they are complying with Title IX in their treatment of women as undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Unlike investigations that arise as the result of a specific allegation of discrimination, these investigations, called compliance reviews, are initiated by the government, often take months, and usually result in a new policy that all colleges and universities must follow. In the past eleven years, only three Title IX compliance reviews in math and science have been conducted by the Education Department. This summer, Monroe said, she planned to do six.

Monroe's comments were noticed by a few conservative blogs and ignited a muted but intense uproar among conservative women's groups and education specialists. The issue wasn't just that Monroe was taking Title IX into virtually uncharted territory, it was the specific criteria for enforcement of the law that she cited.

She told Inside Higher Education, for example, that because the discrimination faced by women in math and science is often "subtle," the government would investigate policies that result in women "feeling unwelcome" in their pursuit of advanced degrees or tenured positions in the hard sciences. Although Monroe promised to "not simply look at the numbers," the unwelcoming environments for women she intended to investigate were in fact schools where a relatively small number of women pursue postgraduate work or where relatively few women are hired as faculty in math and science.

This was not the first time that Monroe, who was confirmed by the Senate last December, had shown a propensity for expansive interpretation of Title IX. In February, she earned praise from groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation for her first act in office: putting school districts on notice that the Bush Department of Education will enforce Clinton-era rules on sexual harassment in schools--including grade schools. These rules made schools responsible for harassment of students by other students--a sweeping expansion of liability for schools, which now have to worry about "inappropriate sexual behavior" between six year olds.

But the expansion of Title IX into federal oversight of math and science programs would have bested even the most aggressive enforcement schemes of Monroe's Clinton-era predecessor, Norma Cantu, who was dubbed, along with Lani Guinier, one of Clinton's "Quota Queens."

So on March 29--four days after Monroe's announcement appeared in National Journal--the White House quietly forced a retraction. On Department of Education letterhead, a statement was released over Monroe's signature promising that "the Department of Education is not expanding Title IX enforcement beyond its regular activities to combat unlawful discrimination. Further, the Department is not implementing any quota system or new enforcement program to advance study opportunities in math and science." And then Monroe promptly went on "travel," according to an Education Department spokesman, and has since been unavailable for interviews.