EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University students are outraged at plans to convert a women-only study lounge in the student union into a space open to both sexes.
Nearly 5,000 students have signed a Change.org petition in an attempt to force MSU officials to reconsider plans to do away with the women’s lounge in the MSU Student Union, which they blame on University of Michigan-Flint professor Mark Perry.
“We are petitioning to reinstate the resources directed towards making women feel safe on campus. We are petitioning to take back our study lounge, reinstate the Women’s Resource Center, and the support our Women’s Counsel. Our society has a history of gender inequality and MSU’s community is sadly no exception,” the petition reads.
“Our University has been tarnished by ongoing investigation of mishandling sexual assault cases, of mostly women. The lounge was a space where sexual assault victims could go and feel safe, a space away from their attacker. …
“Now our lounge, the only room on campus where women could relax and just be around other women, is being taken away.”
The petition cites a civil rights complaint Perry filed with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights that points out the blatant sexual discrimination of MSU maintaining a women only lounge when a similar “safe space” is not afforded to male students, Mlive.com reports.
The “selective, double-standard of civil rights enforcement” at MSU violates federal law, Perry wrote in a blog for the American Enterprise Institute.
“When civil rights laws like Title IX are applied to benefit college women with gender parity in sports programs, for example, women vigorously support those laws,” Perry wrote. “But when Title IX legislation is applied to protect the rights of college men and end discrimination at MSU against half of its students, women no longer support Title IX if it means losing their illegal public study space.”
MSU Sophomore Elizabeth Dziedzic told Mlive.com she’s devastated to lose the “safe place” she used about once a week during her freshman year to escape aggressive male classmates.
“If I felt like I was being harassed or scared, I could go there and I would be safe,” Dziedzic said, adding that many places on campus are not safe from harassment. “Women need a safe place to go, and sometimes dorms aren’t even the safest place.”
MSU alum Judy Putnam, meanwhile, penned an editorial for the Lansing State Journal that acknowledges the concerns of female students opposed to the change. The school installed gender specific lunges for students in 1925, but the men’s lounge was removed years ago, Putnam wrote. Keeping a special space just for women, without the same space for men, is hypocritical.
Perry … has a point. We wouldn’t tolerate, nor should we, an enclave that served only men. So how can we flip the script and use different rules when it comes to a special lounge for women?
I understand that being exactly equal doesn’t always mean things are equitable. Women have additional safety concerns and may want a space free from catcalls or unwanted advances that male students may not have to endure. Still, giving extra real estate to one gender feels too much like a reverse good-ole-boys club and perpetuates the inequities that women have fought hard to overcome.
MSU spokesman Jason Cody told Mlive.com that the school’s decision to reopen the lounge, which is currently closed, as a gender neutral space was made “a couple of months ago” and has nothing to do with Perry’s complaint.
“We still have not seen or been served with any complaint filed by anyone,” he said.
The school did, however, receive a complaint from a transgender student last year, and has heard from male students opposed to the women only lounge in the past, Cody said.
“It is important for our leadership to consider the needs of our transgender community as the decision was made,” he said. “Thus, we decided on an open lounge for all students, rather than adding a male-only lounge.”
Legal experts on federal Title IX laws believe MSU made the right choice.
Cornell University labor law professor Risa Liberwitz rejected the petitioners’ concerns about unwanted attention as a reason for keeping the exclusive study lounge.
“If there’s a problem of sexual harassment, you deal with the problem,” she said. “Dealing with the problem of sexual harassment is very different from let’s have single sex facilities.”
“People could make the same argument about the classroom,” Lieberwitz said, “that maybe they want a single-gender classroom because it would be a safer space.”