The Voice of the Conservative Movement at Wabash College

How Many Women Should Teach at Wabash?

That is a loaded question, I know, so before my stoning begins, let me make it very clear that I am not saying we shouldn’t have women on the faculty, nor am I saying that women cannot be great professors at Wabash. The women faculty we have at Wabash are excellent teachers and fine colleagues. They should be supported and encouraged to stay here. In fact, any woman who would enjoy teaching at an all male college is a precious find in today’s cultural climate. I think we should celebrate the women who like being here, find out why they like being here, and use that knowledge to make sure that the women we hire in the future will be women who like being here.

Now there are still going to be some faculty reading this (if they make it past the title) who will be looking for something heavy on their desks to throw at me, so let me address them directly. Put down your paperweights and look in a mirror. This is your question, not mine. I might be daring (or dumb) enough to ask it, but I’m not the one who keeps saying, like many of my colleagues, that we need more women on the faculty. If you think we need more women on the faculty, then you must have some general idea of how many women you want on the faculty. So my question is really your question. I shouldn’t even be the one asking it. You should be the ones telling me how many women you think should teach at Wabash.

My suspicion is that some of my colleagues think that Wabash should strive to have an equal number of men and women on the faculty. Why? Would that make Wabash a better school for men? That is the question we really need to answer.

Departments at any college or university often have political agendas when they hire new professors. One agenda that has shaped hiring practices at Wabash is the perceived need to have more women on the faculty. Some departments will not even bring a man to the campus interview stage in order to insure that a woman is hired. This comes dangerously close to a quota system. I think quota systems and gender preferences in hiring, even if they are unofficial and discrete, are illegal and immoral. Probably many faculty agree with me that quota systems are unfair and unethical. That is why the question of how many women should teach at Wabash never gets asked. If the faculty who want more women here were to ask this question, their quota system would be exposed. This question is implied in their hiring practices, but making it explicit would subject those practices to more scrutiny and criticism.

As far as I can tell, this unofficial quota system is driven in large part by the prevalence of feminist ideology among the faculty. Feminists typically claim that women are so victimized by male oppression that they should be given preferential employment opportunities to compensate for that oppression. I am open to thinking about this claim, but since women outnumber men on today’s campuses and are catching up with men in all professions, I think it is safe to say that women are no longer in need of preferential hiring in higher education.

I suppose a cynic might come up with another reason for our unofficial quota system. Many faculty at Wabash do not support all male education, as was made clear in the recent faculty quality of life survey. It follows that they must feel guilty about teaching here. (They should. If you accept generous payment from an institution you think is morally bankrupt, then you should feel not only guilt but also shame, but that’s another story.) Professors who feel guilty about not having women in the classroom are likely to try to assuage their guilt by hiring more women on the faculty. Psychologists call this compensatory behavior. A cynic might go even further with this analysis by suspecting that some Wabash professors think that the more women they hire on the faculty, the more likely Wabash will go co-ed. Perhaps some feminist faculty even hope that the women they hire will not like it here (perhaps they even try to hire women who are so radical in their feminist commitments that they are destined not to like it here). If there are enough unhappy women on the faculty who wish they had female students they could mentor, then the college will be forced to make them happy by becoming co-ed.

If some faculty really think this way, it would be the height of perversity—using women to promote the co-ed agenda. I hope the cynics are wrong about my colleagues. I think a more likely line of reasoning is this: Because we are all male, many professors think that we need lots of women in faculty positions in order to give students contact with professional, intelligent, and ambitious women. In other words, since Wabash students don’t experience smart girls in the classroom, at least they can have smart female professors. I think there is something to this argument, but it is also loaded with questionable assumptions. Do women faculty really compensate for a lack of women students? Do Wabash students really have fewer contacts with intelligent, ambitious girls just because they go to an all male school? Does not having girls in the classroom somehow bias Wabash students against intelligent, ambitious women? I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but they are worth asking and studying.

There is something to the argument, then, that Wabash needs good women teachers, but does it follow that we should hire faculty on the basis of gender? Since I find the question of quotas so distasteful, let me suggest that the real question we should be asking is not how many women should teach at Wabash. The real question we need to ask is this: How do we hire faculty who know how to teach men, or at least are committed to learning how to teach men. That should be the most important question in hiring new faculty. Gender considerations should be secondary to the aim of promoting excellence in the classroom. When we start with that question, we get a whole new perspective on the issue of hiring preferences for women.

If you start with the goal of hiring faculty who are passionate about teaching men, then you might end up with the conclusion that Wabash should not go out of its way to hire women. But would you end up supporting gender blind hiring, or would you, in fact, end up worrying about the number of men on the faculty? Could it be that men, in general and on average, are better at teaching and mentoring men than women?

I know that’s a controversial statement, so let’s look at all female colleges to see how they handle the role of gender in hiring. Interestingly, all women’s colleges are very open and up front about asking the converse of our question, which is, how many men should teach at an all-female school? Elizabeth Tidball has done more research on all women’s colleges than any other scholar, and one of the issues she has looked into is the question of women faculty mentoring women students. She argues that an all women’s school needs a strong presence of women on the faculty. Women students, it seems, respond better, in some situations, to women faculty as mentors than to men. She has ever tried to document this effect. An all-female college should have at least 50% female faculty.

If faculty at all-female colleges can talk about this issue, then I think the time has come for Wabash to talk about it. If women students respond best to women faculty, then is it possible that the same is true about men? Could it be that men faculty do a better job connecting with male students about their lives and loves (sports, sex, and video games, among other things) than women? Could it be, as I said above, that in general and on average, men are better at teaching and mentoring men than women? I’m not sure that the answer to that question is obvious. Indeed, I think the measure of a successful teacher in an all-male classroom is how well that teacher can respond pedagogically to men. In other words, we should focus not on the gender of the teacher but on the gender-knowledge of the teacher. Does the teacher understand the unique dynamic of the all male classroom, the unique learning patterns of men, and the unique culture of an all male school? Is the teacher committed to learning how to teach in a single sex college? Those are the questions we need to ask of new faculty. It could be that some men are not all that great at teaching men, and some women could be really, really great at it. (In fact, we have some of those women at Wabash, and we are lucky to have them.)

It could also be that, on average and in general, young men need older men as mentors and role models more than they need older women, just as Elizabeth Tidball has documented how young women need older women as mentors and role models. If so, then it follows that Wabash could not be an effective single sex college if we were to have a majority of faculty who are not sympathetic and committed to all male education. It also might follow that Wabash needs not only a majority of male faculty but also a majority of male faculty who know how to teach and mentor young men. After all, not all male faculty are interested in and passionate about teaching men.

So the real question we should be asking is: How many men should teach at Wabash? I’m not saying that we should have a new quota system for hiring men rather than women. I’m saying that whoever we hire should be committed to teaching men and to learning about how to better teach men. We should also recognize that it is possible that men, in general and on average, will be better at this than women, so we should worry a little bit more about finding the right men to teach at Wabash than simply hiring women for the sake of having more women on the faculty. Yet when we find women who want to teach here, we should count ourselves lucky and support them in every way that we can. I would prefer to have a gender blind hiring process, but as long as gender remains an issue at Wabash, and as long as many faculty worry about the numbers of each gender on the faculty, I think it is time to start asking about the role of male professors at Wabash — the kind of men we need to make our students the men they want to be.

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Stephen H. Webb '83

About Stephen H. Webb '83

Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence and Taking Religion to School. He serves as the faculty advisor to the Wabash Conservative Union.

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