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The Great Feminization of the American University

A response to Heather Mac Donald’s provocative new essay on the “mass nervous breakdown on campus.”
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My Manhattan Institute colleague Heather Mac Donald has published a provocative new essay in City Journal, titled “The Great Feminization of the American University.” Mac Donald begins by pointing out that women now constitute the ruling majority on campus: 75 percent of Ivy League presidents, 66 percent of college administrators, and 58 percent of recent graduates are now female.

And the consequences, Mac Donald argues, are troubling. “Female students and administrators often exist in a co-dependent relationship, united by the concepts of victim identity and of trauma,” she writes. “For university females, there is not, apparently, strength in numbers. The more females’ ranks increase, the more we hear about a mass nervous breakdown on campus.”

In my new video essay, I analyze this cultural shift and explain how the modern university has become a “therapeutic institution,” which, according to my recent reporting on university DEI programming, is characterized by the following trends:

  • The left-wing victim narrative has moved from an economic axis to a psychological axis, with “traumatizer” and “traumatized” replacing “oppressed” and “oppressed.”

  • Individual pathology is valorized as a form of marginalized identity.

  • This new social system incentivizes trauma, disorder, and emotional displays.

  • The ideology expresses itself through a therapeutic bureaucracy that operates according to political ideology.

Listen to this video on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.

Transcript

My colleague Heather Mac Donald has an incredible essay in the latest City Journal, titled “The Great Feminization of the American University.” And she looks at the statistics, she looks at the demographic detail, and then she draws some startling conclusions about what this change has caused culturally in American universities.

Right off the top, she gives you a sense of the changing landscape. She points out that 75% of Ivy League presidents are now female, 66% of college administrators are now female, and 58% of all undergraduates—measured as the number of students completing a BA degree in recent years—are also female. So you have somewhere along the lines of a ratio of two to one, or higher, on average, female to male.

This will have cultural consequences. And Heather’s conclusion is this: “Female students and administrators often exist in a co-dependent relationship, united by the concepts of victim identity and of trauma. For university females, there is not apparently strength in numbers. The more females’ ranks increase, the more we hear about a mass nervous breakdown on campus.” Heather is a great rhetorical mind. She’s a great statistical mind. She’s a great legal mind. And she never minces her words. This is her conclusion, that what she calls the “Great Feminization of the American University” is leading us to a “mass nervous breakdown on campus.”

In this video, I’d like to go over what this means, provide a little further analysis and commentary, and see if we can’t untangle this change and really try to explore it in a deeper way.

Trait Systemization Versus Trait Empathization

Right off the bat, a concept that I think you should have handy comes from a research psychologist at the University of Toronto and a friend of mine named J.D. Haltigan. He’s been writing on the conflict or the imbalance between trait systemization and trait empathization. These are psychological concepts that represent a cluster of attitudes, attributes, and qualities that can be loosely and archetypally defined as representing the masculine and the feminine. In this dichotomy, trade systemization represents rationalism and order, archetypally masculine virtues, while trait empathization represents compassion and empathy, archetypally feminine virtues.

This is not to say that one is good or one is bad. I think what psychologists have told us, and really, dating back to Biblical references, we’ve known throughout human history, that mankind must have both sets of virtues. Mankind must have some kind of balance. And when they get out of balance, you start to see social, interpersonal, and individual problems. So there are some cultures and institutions that have an imbalance toward trait systemization. They are too masculine, too punitive, too restrictive, and too authoritarian. And then you have in other institutions an imbalance toward trait empathization. They are too permissive, they are too coddling, they are too compassionate in a way that becomes pathological.

Haltigan and Heather Mac Donald are making the argument that our institutions, in this case, the university system, have become too overloaded toward trait empathization. And that when you have the virtue of compassion, although it is of course good in and of itself, can actually become pathological and have unintended negative consequences if it’s not balanced with a sense of systemization, or a sense of order, hierarchy, and competition—more masculine virtues.

The University as a Therapeutic Institution

I’ve been observing this both in my own experience, in my recent reporting on DEI in public universities, and in my role as a trustee of New College of Florida. And I’ve noticed that what we are seeing, in a sense, is the emergence of the university as a “therapeutic institution.” The culture is not oriented towards the production of knowledge or towards merit, which are competitive and hierarchical, but towards a system based on personal identity and a therapeutic model, so that the university becomes a place for personal exploration, a place to heal from trauma and dysregulation, a place that provides a therapeutic environment rather than a competitive and knowledge-seeking environment.

I’d like to go over some of the attributes that I’ve noticed over time to flesh out exactly what this might mean. The modern university, I think, first can be characterized as having adopted left-wing victim narratives, not on the axis of economics or race—although certainly, those are there—but on the axis of the psychological. So traditionally, in left-wing thought, you have this split between “oppressor” and “oppressed.” Under orthodox Marxism, this was an economic axis between the capitalist and the proletariat. Under something like critical race theory, it becomes a racial axis, between the white oppressor and the black or non-white oppressed. But in the modern feminized university, you see something different altogether. You see it on the axis of psychology, and so you have the “traumatizer” and the “traumatized” as the fundamental dynamic. The university has become the new ground for left-wing victim narratives that are overloaded on trait empathization.

So what does this mean? This means—of course, taking for granted that there is an economic component and a racial component—that if you look at the psychological component, it is really something that shifts into an interior set of values, an interior set of virtues, subjective experiences prioritized over objective reality, and the hierarchies are based on these invisible traumatic experiences or categorization.

The second attribute that I’ve noticed is that individual pathology is valorized as a form of marginalized identity. So when you have this victim narrative along a psychological line, all of a sudden individual psychopathologies, individual traumas, individual problems, individual personality disorders, something even like obesity, a kind of physical disorder or dysregulation, are elevated into marginalized identities that provide the moral center of these new victim narratives. So this opens the pathways quite significantly. It opens participation in this great narrative. Suddenly, you don’t have to be poor, you don’t have to be a non-white racial minority. You can actually have a marginalized sexual identity, for example, based on queer theory. You can have a marginalized physical identity, whether it’s through a traditional physical disability or something like obesity, that’s valorized through fat studies and other disciplines. And then you can just have a mental illness—or you can claim to have a mental illness—and these personality disorders become not a problem of interior dysregulation, rather, they are projected onto society as evidence of a “victimizer-victimized, or “traumatizer-traumatized” identity. You see this everywhere on university campuses.

The third important point is that when you take the victim narrative based on psychology and you elevate individual pathology into a form of marginalized identity, you create a social system that incentivizes certain kinds of behaviors. I think actually, in some ways, if you look at the DSM-5 criteria for borderline personality disorder, and you take them as a metaphor for a social process, you’re actually incentivizing many of those traits. You’re incentivizing emotional lability, or emotional displays. You’re incentivizing in some ways a paranoid relationship between individuals and society. You’re incentivizing the flaunting of trauma or traumatic experiences, and you’re creating a set of social games that are not designed to bring that individual to health, but to create a narrative between self and society that ultimately is a condemnation of society, whether or not that actually results in an internal integration or an internal process of coming to health.

Fourth, how does this express itself in an institutional setting? It expresses itself through the bureaucracy. In my reporting recently on public universities in the State of Florida, I’ve been flabbergasted. You probably know the story about the increase in college administration, the increase in bureaucracy, as a statistical matter. We now have more than a million college administrators in the United States. It’s a huge number of people. But if you break it down into its component parts, you see something very interesting. You see massive counseling centers that are based on left-wing therapeutic ideologies. You see these cultural centers that are divvied up by race and have absorbed victim narratives on a psychological axis. You have so-called “queer spaces.” And then you have massive DEI departments that are both standalone administrative departments and also embedded units, task forces, or committees within all of the academic departments. And when you read their statements, it’s very clear: this isn’t revolutionary Marxist-Leninist rhetoric like you would see from the Black Panther Party from the 1960s. This is therapeutic rhetoric that is more feminine in its characteristics and its tone. It’s appealing to people through more manipulative strategies, rather than directly aggressive strategies.

So if you take these four attributes, these four characteristics of the new therapeutic university, what is the larger cultural significance? Well, you can see it very clearly as you look at their rhetoric, as you look at their statements, as you look at their programming. The left-wing diversity bureaucrat—again, predominantly female—is the rescuer of the traumatized. So in this victim narrative, it’s something of a twist. Previously, they would say that the proletarian rises up and overthrows the capitalist. It was violent, it was aggressive, and it was about flipping existing hierarchies. In this new model of the therapeutic institution, the left-wing diversity bureaucrat rescues the traumatized and turns his or her personal trauma into a moral and socially significant phenomenon. It is an internal twist on this narrative, and it gives meaning to the diversity bureaucrat as a rescuer, as someone who is involved in protecting the traumatized, protecting the weak.

Again: in and of itself, the maternal instinct to protect the weak is good, you need it in society, but it’s become pathologized. The problem is that by elevating this narrative of personal pathology into a valorized identity, creating social incentives that encourage this kind of behavior, you get a very dysfunctional system that incentivizes un-health, that incentivizes disorder, that incentivizes emotional displays that don’t actually solve the underlying psychological problem, but use the psychological problem to push a political line.

This is, I think, in most cases, unintentional. I don’t ascribe malice to most of these people. If you talk to them, they’re genuinely committed to their political ideology. They’re genuinely committed to helping people. But what they don’t see is that when you overload trait empathization, compassion and altruism can become pathological, and they not only extend or perpetuate damage, but create new damage for individuals and for the institution as a whole. And as Heather Mac Donald explains very brilliantly in her essay, these social systems can be hijacked and they turn into a co-dependent relationship that benefits no one, but keeps the bureaucracy growing.

The Campus Culture Trap

What does this mean for students? I’d argue that it creates something of a culture trap. There is a bureaucracy. There is a system of incentives. There is a social narrative through which students can participate in this great conflict between the traumatizer and the traumatized. They can rebel against the existing society that they believe is racist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal, and cisnormative. Whatever category you have, as you pit that identity against a larger social structure, you’re creating a conflict that can’t be resolved at the individual level. So at universities—again, that have become more female-dominated institutions—this allows white women in particular to participate in these left-wing victim narratives that they couldn’t participate in otherwise. Of course, there’s a feminist narrative that’s divided between men and women, but in an intersectional world where you need multiple intersecting categories of oppressed identities, that’s really not sufficient to participate deeply in this narrative anymore.

So what happens is that you have students who can create new identities through the psychological axis that gives them deeper participation in politics. You see this everywhere. You can actually look at social media profiles, for example, of young people, of college students, and see how they’re constructing their identity for the world. And what you’ll find is that they’ll put gender pronouns in their bios. They’ll have identities such as “trans,” “non-binary,” “pansexual,” etc. There is a plethora of options now, hundreds of different neo-identities based on queer theory. You’ll also see physical disabilities, or obesity, for example, which is no longer considered just a health condition, but an oppressed identity, which gives you another point of participation.

And then you’ll see actual DSM-5 mental disorders as political identities. People will actually put whatever their diagnoses might be in their biographies, in their public social media profiles, to say they have bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, trauma, or depression—which again, is not to denigrate those conditions, is not to shame people, is not to say that we should suppress all conversation of those disorders. Quite the opposite. But what we’re seeing here is not a sense of the individual talking about his or her condition in order to resolve the problem. It’s the individual talking about his or her condition in order to wield it as a political identity and a political weapon, in contradiction to the reigning social order and the reigning oppressive social structures.

We can use New College of Florida as an example to understand this demographic shift and to understand the related cultural shift. The data is quite clear. The student body at New College is 66% female. In other words, it’s two to one female to male among students. It has a high percentage of alternative sexual identities, such as “trans,” “non-binary,” and “pansexual”—again, political categories that have been created according to queer theory and other related disciplines. Regarding mental health, at New College, approximately one-quarter of students in the course of a recent school year engaged in counseling or psychotherapy through the student counseling and health center, and 10% reported to the university they had considered suicide, along with a growing number of students who were temporarily detained under the Baker Act—meaning, if you’re a threat to yourself or others, you can go into temporary detention.

So again: I have one hundred percent sympathy for any students or any human beings that are going through significant psychological challenges. I think that psychotherapy is an important tool in pursuing health and pursuing the integration of personality. But these numbers are meaningful. These numbers are very different than they were in the past. And this change has to be looked at not just from the point of view of automatic affirmation, the point of view of a political narrative that this conforms to, but the point of view of an actual debate that asks what this means, what it might signify for the culture.

The Situation at New College

At New College, I think you can see the same dynamic expressing itself through the leadership on campus. When I first visited New College as a trustee, I had a showdown with the provost and the president—whom we subsequently fired—about even being able to participate in a campus event. That was the first time I was going to introduce myself to the campus community, hosting an open town hall with students and then with faculty and staff. The provost, in a very passive-aggressive manner, said that, because we received a death threat against my fellow trustee, Eddie Speir, we were not allowed to proceed with the event. It was too unsafe, it was too dangerous, even though we had a secure perimeter, a police presence from three different departments, a SWAT team, and, I think, a bomb-sniffing dog from the anti-terror unit.

Trustee Speir and I were informed of the situation and we made a decision that the risk was worthwhile, because we wanted to talk about the changes that were coming to campus. But the provost used all of the manipulative tricks in the book: shaking her finger, appealing to safety, saying that our ideas were not welcome on campus because they were going to put people in physical danger. None of it was true, of course. In reality, it was fake empathy utilized as a left-wing power strategy. The provost, in my private conversations with her, made it very clear that she didn’t like me, she didn’t like this takeover, she didn’t like what DeSantis was doing, she didn’t want to make any changes. She approached it with a sense of indignance. She very made it very clear that she was going to do anything she could, use any trick in the book, to shut down reforms, to shut down conversation, to shut down what she perceived as a challenge to the therapeutic left-wing narrative on campus.

At the same time, we saw student protests that also used this language of the therapeutic as a power strategy. You’ve seen the kind of rhetoric, which is worth analyzing. You have unhinged epithets: “you are bad,” “you are an oppressor,” “you are a representative of the patriarchy.” All of the left-wing traumatizer buzzwords get sucked into this narrative, which features very aggressive and unhinged rhetoric designed to shame, designed to stigmatize the enemy as an oppressor.

At the same time, you see the other side of the coin: the victim-identity narratives. The protestors were saying that any reforms to the campus will make it “unsafe,” will directly “target trans students.” These are accusations that have nothing to do with reality. There’s really no logical proof that any of these things are true. They certainly don’t conform with any of the stated intentions of reformers. But the activists are trying to create this artificial dialectic between “traumatizer” and “traumatized” on both poles of that narrative. And this results in a style of emotional bullying, using magic words, which you see a lot in these new therapeutic institutions. Left-wing buzzwords are accorded magical power. They can define “oppressor” and “oppressed.” They can tap into this archetypal narrative. And then everything has to conform with that narrative, because otherwise, it’s going to create danger, it’s going to create trauma, it’s going to create violence, it’s going to create an unsafe environment.

And third—something that actually was the most surprising to me—is that one of the most common personas at our New College of Florida board meetings was not the students protesting, but was actually the students’ mothers protesting. You had many people that said during public comment: I’m the mother of a child at New College and I’m here to protest these reforms. And, for me, this is kind of bizarre. I would’ve been mortified if my mother had come to my college and protested on my behalf. There’s nothing that is more infantilizing, more smothering, more devouring than taking your adult child and putting that adult child in the position of such infantile capacity that you’re going to go to their college and protest on their behalf, in lieu of them protesting for themselves.

This is, of course, indicative of the great difference between the 1960s campus protests, which were much more aggressive and were driven by students protesting on their own behalf. You would never see any parents at the protests on campus in 1968, but now what you have is a student protest driven by parents—not in kindergarten, not in elementary school, not even in high school, which is kind of marginal already, but at university. At New College, you had one woman who said that she had been living for five weeks in a hotel a hundred yards from campus and she had dedicated herself to protecting her child, to protecting the institution from this takeover. And I’m sitting there listening to these folks and thinking: Do they not see the crazy nature of this protest? You have college administrators, college students, and their mothers all protesting these pseudo-narratives, protesting against basic reforms, but, more deeply, protesting against basic structures of reality.

The Collapse of Authority

In conclusion, I’d like to say also, to be very clear: this is not a problem of women per se. Women are an essential category of being. Women are an essential part of human society. Women have essential virtues that are, in most cases, unavailable to men. This is simply to state that governance dominated by trait empathization and governance dominated by trait systemization are simply different. This shouldn’t be controversial. If you’ve ever spent time in a sorority house and time in a fraternity house, you can tell pretty quickly that these are very different institutions. They’re governed by a different set of incentives, a different set of rules, a different method of hierarchy, and a different number of social games. If you show a picture of a frat house and a picture of a sorority house, anyone could spot the difference immediately—they look very different, they sound very different, the energy inside these institutions is very different.

So, of course, by analogy, a university that is dominated by more feminine modes of governance is going to be different. In some ways, it could be better. There’s an argument in which you could say that, previously, universities had been too dominated by trait systemization, which had squandered the interpersonal, the psychological, the elevation of internal capacities or compassionate modes of relations. There’s a good argument for that. That’s probably been true in some cases. But, by the same token, I think we can argue now that what Mac Donald calls the “great feminization of the university” might have some benefits, but also some harms. It might have some limitations and drawbacks. It might have, especially because it’s new, its own set of incentives that are not in the best interest of students, not in the best interest of the public, and not in the best interest of the university as an institution designed in pursuit of knowledge.

How does this actually play out in real life? And again, to criticize men: as a broad category, male leaders have abdicated responsibility in the universities for fifty years. If you go back and read the great essay by Harry Jaffa, “The Reichstag is Still Burning,” he documents the failure of leadership and, in particular, the failure of trustee leadership at Claremont McKenna in the 1960s. He said: Look, these folks abdicated. They were weak. They caved to the mob. They presented themselves as great stewards of the institution, but when push came to shove, they folded, they caved, they gave up, and they didn’t embody the masculine virtues that they claimed to have.

And what you see on campus now—I’ve seen this in my recent reporting—is that current male academic leaders, again, archetypally, in general, represent the weak and absent father. There was a video that I saw from the University of Central Florida. Right after the BLM movement was taking off, right after the death of George Floyd, they did this webinar town hall and the students, faculty, and administrators are just berating the president. They’re really just laying into him. They’re humiliating him. They’re attacking him. They’re making unreasonable demands. And he just says, a very meek figure: Oh yeah, I’m sorry. I’ll do whatever you want. It was clear: the leadership model for trait systemization has been vanquished, so that even men in these positions, for the most part, don’t demonstrate those virtues, and consequently, you have this overload of trait empathization that really permeates the university culture as a whole.

The Path Foward

And the final point: what is the solution? Well, I think it is to put balance back into university life, to restore a balance between these two modes of governance, to restore a balance between empathy and hierarchy. You have to restore them in order to have a functioning university culture that isn’t an out of balance in one way or the other. So what this is going to require is a systemization of the university. It’s going to require strong leadership at the top that restores ideals like merit, competition, and hierarchy based on excellence—a kind of aristocratic sense that acknowledges that, even within an egalitarian institution, you have to have an inner aristocratic pathway where students and faculty can distinguish themselves on the basis of the excellence of their work.

You also have to have a restoration of what could be termed paternal authority—not literally in the sense that it has to be men doing so, but figuratively in the sense that you have to have a sense of order that says “no” sometimes, that tells students “this is not in your best interest,” that tells students “there’s no evidence for your assertion,” that tells students: “You’re free to protest, that’s your right to expression, but we’re going to implement these reforms for these reasons. And if you want to persuade me otherwise, you have to bring a logical argument, not merely hysteria and theatrics appealing to left-wing victim narratives. That’s not going to cut it in the new university environment.”

So, will we see this? I don’t know. I know I’m going to be trying over the course of this year, both as a trustee at a public university and also as a public intellectual, to get this debate back into our culture. And certainly, in the advising that I do for legislators and governors and Congressmen, I’ll be pushing this necessity. I want conservative leaders to start thinking intelligently about this. I want to tell them: Don’t get caught in the rhetorical traps, don’t get caught in the rhetorical premises, but actually fight this fight because it’s the truth, because it improves the quality of institutions and allows people of all different backgrounds to participate in the great pursuit of knowledge, which is what our universities should be all about.

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Christopher F. Rufo