Minnesota State University Moorhead recently ceased its NEW Leadership Development Institute organized by NEW Leadership Northern Lights and Professor Deborah White. The institute offered training that was particularly effective at boosting women's civic leadership, but men were not prohibited from applying or participating. Indeed, some men have been accepted by this institute that has served many emerging leaders in North Dakota, Minnesota and neighboring communities, according to its coordinator.
Women are underrepresented in leadership throughout North Dakota, including but not limited to statewide elected office and the Legislature. Women’s lived experiences differ from those of men, so there is no substitute for women in decision-making roles. The MSUM institute addressed a real problem.
I’m among the institute’s alumni. It’s difficult to fully describe the impact that the institute has had on me and other alumni. The impact is deeply significant and unique, and it’s a genuinely life-changing experience for many. The deliberate focus on leadership training that women need is a key reason for the institute’s tremendous contribution.
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NEW Leadership Northern Lights has skillfully managed to nourish and empower women leaders without excluding competitive male applicants. Thus, MSUM’s suspension of the institute risks a devastating setback when it comes to developing community leaders.
You might ask, why would MSUM administrators cease the institute’s operations? It’s because Mark J. Perry, a scholar of the D.C.-based think tank named the American Enterprise Institute, has filed a complaint alleging violations of Title IX. MSUM’s institute is a recent target.
John Byrne of Poets & Quants quotes Perry: “There is a lot of female privilege and payback in higher education. They like the fact that they are given a disproportionate share of resources at universities.” The idea that our region’s women are the privileged ones when it comes to leadership would be funny if it wasn’t so destructive. But let’s dig further into the issues.
First, the language of Title IX is important: “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” (20 U.S. Code § 1681). The law also states that institutions aren’t required to grant preferential treatment to one sex merely to make up for an imbalance in participation in a program. Thus, it didn’t forbid the MSUM institute from having more female than male participants. However, the law also clarifies that such an imbalance can be used as potential evidence that sex-based discrimination may be occurring.
Ultimately, MSUM decided not to fight Perry’s claim and to shutter the institute instead. It’s hard to say what the Office for Civil Rights would have decided, given that NEW Leadership Northern Lights has a nondiscrimination policy and takes care to give male applicants a fair shake. In reading about Perry's national efforts, he seems concerned about advertising for programs with high female participation. Perhaps the MSUM institute could have adjusted its advertising, but we’ll never know.
Perry points out that many men have unsuccessful outcomes in higher ed. This is true, and it’s pronounced among low-income men, disabled men, men of color, and LGBTQ+ men. When men aren’t having their needs met, real solutions are needed. Derailing efforts to support women in contexts in which they are underrepresented is not a solution. Marshaling resources so that men’s needs are met is a real solution.
Ultimately, NEW Leadership Northern Lights is seeking to continue its institute outside of higher education. Please join me in supporting Deborah White’s efforts to keep the regional NEW Leadership Development Institute alive. Email NEWLeadershipNorthernLights@gmail.com for more info.
Ellie Shockley is a political psychologist, social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan. Find her past columns at EllieShockley.com