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WTF: Why Does UVM Need a Coordinator of Men and Masculinities?


  • Matt Mignanelli

Are men in crisis? Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson think so. The former delivered a speech in the fall of 2021 about "the left's attack on men in America"; the latter recently released a streaming special with the histrionic title "The End of Men."

Its trailer, which was ruthlessly mocked on the internet for its unintentional homoeroticism, tells viewers, "In ages past, a cycle began ... Hard times made strong men ... Strong men made good times ... Good times made weak men ... Weak men made hard times." The implication: The world is in chaos because men forgot how to be men.

I roll my eyes at such notions. So, when I got wind of a new position at the University of Vermont called "coordinator of the men and masculinities program," who will be "responsible for creating programs and initiatives at the [Women & Gender Equity] Center to help support the retention and success of masculine identified students," I thought: WTF? Is not the entire world designed to keep men on top? Why would UVM need a specialized staffer for that? Have college officials drunk Carlson's Kool-Aid?

Short answer: no. A different kind of predicament involving men is unfolding at American colleges and universities, including UVM.

"It's strange to have a position that helps ... cisgender [men] like me succeed when the world was built for us to succeed," Jay Jacobs, UVM's vice provost for enrollment management, said by phone. But men and masculine-identified UVM students aren't succeeding as much as their femme counterparts in metrics such as enrollment, retention and graduation rates.

About 10 years ago, the gender distribution at UVM was more or less even, with an increasing gap of about 1 percent per year, Jacobs said. In the fall of 2021, 62 percent of the school's undergraduates identified as female; 38 percent as male. That's close to the national trend. The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, found in the fall of 2020 that 41 percent of U.S. students enrolled in college were men.

There isn't a simple reason why fewer men are attending UVM, Jacobs said. "Me and my team are still drudging through the data and performing focus groups and surveys and things like that," he said.

So are journalists and researchers. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and the Pew Research Center recently published data confirming the trend. And a quick Google search brings up plenty of headlines: Forbes' "Men in College: Another Casualty of the Covid-19 Pandemic"; the New York Times' "More Women Than Men Are Going to College. That May Change the Economy"; and the Atlantic's "Colleges Have a Guy Problem" are just a handful of articles attempting to explain the trend and its ramifications.

Masculinities studies have grown in popularity in the last decade. But positions like the one at UVM, though not novel, are still somewhat rare, according to Kyle Ashlee, the outgoing chair of the American College Personnel Association's Coalition on Men & Masculinities.

"Much research has demonstrated the benefits of engaging and supporting men and masculinities," Ashlee wrote in an email, noting that men and masculinities programs can increase success and improve male students' sense of belonging.

Finding out why fewer men go to college is just part of what UVM's coordinator will do. The new hire will also help the school's men examine their masculine identities.

Sarah Mell, who works for the office of the vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, explained by phone that the coordinator will provide spaces for men to unpack their identity, dominant as it may be.

"Folks with marginalized gender identities automatically have to do that work because there is no other option," Mell said. "If you're coming into a space with a dominant identity, you're not necessarily asked to do that."

If masculine-identified individuals are given the opportunity to formally unpack their maleness, it can help them think about ways to contextualize their gender expression and identity within relationships. That can lead to "a more holistic education of self," Mell said.

But how will the coordinator encourage students in said discussions? That's the tricky part, Mell said: "[The coordinator] is going to have to really navigate constructs of masculinity that are specific to UVM's cultures as a means of connecting and building affinity with folks."

As an example, Mell recalled working as a sexuality educator at Planned Parenthood in 2006. Late-night pickup basketball games at Burlington's Memorial Auditorium were a prime opportunity to engage with men in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. Essentially, "You start showing up at the spaces that matter to the people you're trying to meet and connect with," Mell explained.

Though the position has yet to be filled, masculinities work at UVM seems to be gaining traction with students. A bimonthly talk group has formed, with men showing up to have "really vulnerable conversations," Mell said.

Rather than arriving at "the end of men," perhaps UVM is part of a new beginning.

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