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Gendered Values in Higher Education

Universities have gone through enormous shifts in basic values.

This guest post was written by Zachary Rausch.

Zachary Rausch
Source: Zachary Rausch

Trigger Warning

I am going to begin this article by presenting a potentially uncomfortable argument. The rest of this article will try to convince you that there might be something to it.

The Argument

Without understanding the role of gender demographic changes in higher education, it will be impossible to fully understand many of the modern social movements (e.g., trigger warnings, disinvitations, safe spaces, etc.) on American college campuses.

My Beginning

For me, this all started with a noteworthy event in a college class. At some point, the conversation in the class turned to one particular prominent psychologist who had made some comments that could be interpreted as ethically questionable. One student in the class indicated that this scholar should not be invited to college campuses to speak in light of the ethically questionable ideas that he had reportedly expressed in one of his writings.

My peer's expression of outrage led to a quiet sea of nodding heads and supportive gestures. And at that point in my academic career, I did not know what to think. By the end of the class period, based on not having actually read materials related to this reported incident and having no counter-argument postulated, we had essentially come to the conclusion that the outraged student was right: This particular scholar should have been banned campuses writ large. We were, metaphorically, asking for his head.

The Background

Some of you may find this story surprising; some may agree with the viewpoint of the students; some may adamantly disagree; and some of you may think I am beating a dead horse. But regardless of one's belief, I have come to realize that this anecdote embodies a deep, ongoing politicized debate regarding political correctness and free speech on American college campuses, the rise of speaker disinvitations, the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings, the increasing liberal homogeneity on campuses, the complex relationship between emotion and reason, and fears of shifting educational values and of a "coddled" new generation of college students (FIRE, 2019; Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018; Shulevitz, 2015; Wilson, 1995).

There have been many different causal explanations for these movements on campuses. But one landmark diagnosis of this new-age college culture was delivered in Greg Lukianoff (president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, aka FIRE) and NYU Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt's recently published book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

Rooted in technological overload, over-parenting, lack of free play, high-stakes testing, political polarization, conformist university policy, and left-leaning ideological agendas, the authors argue that the current generation of undergraduate college students (especially those born between 1995-2014, i.e., Generation Z) have been raised in a way that has uniquely positioned them to embrace a culture of victimization. In other words, this generation of students determines truth through subjective feelings, is highly sensitive to emotional slights, and feels the need to protect the marginalized above and beyond all else.

Lukianoff and Haidt (2018) posited that the emotional and social needs of students had taken precedence over other academic goals, such as the freedom of intellectual exchange. Haidt (2016a) additionally argued that emotional and social values are also taking precedence over the value of pursuing truth. On the other hand, critics have argued that Lukianoff and Haidt are off the mark. These writers posited that:

1. The relationship between helicopter parenting, lack of free play, and emotional fragility would mostly apply to economically privileged students (Warner, 2018).

2. Other macro-level causal factors of students' emotional turmoil were not addressed (e.g., student loan debt, the economic crisis of 2008, climate change, social inequality, and meager job prospects) (Warner, 2018; Weigel, 2018).

3. The historical disenfranchisement of distinct student populations (e.g., women and people of color) in universities must be taken into account when trying to understand the current social movements on campuses (Weigel, 2018).

The Point

We recognized that there were questions and problems lingering beneath this incessant stream of ideas that needed to be answered. First of all, there has been no empirical research exploring what the majority of college students and professors actually believe!

In other words, we do not know if the majority of American college students actually prioritize social justice goals and emotional sensitivity above and beyond traditional academic values, such as academic freedom (freedom to teach, learn, and say what one wants), advancing knowledge (using education as a means to discover the "truth"), and academic rigor (having challenging academic work). And we do not know the extent that university professors endorse the values of emotional sensitivity, social justice, advancing knowledge, academic freedom, and academic rigor.

Second, we do not know the kind of variability in educational values there are for both students and professors.

Last, we do not know if there really is a difference between Generation-Z students and older generation students or male and female students in their educational values.

We decided to find the answers. Here, I briefly summarize the results of a study on the academic values of modern college students that I conducted recently here in my role as a psychology graduate student at SUNY New Paltz. Here is what I learned.*

What We Did

In this study, several hundred college students from around the United States were asked to allocate 100 points toward the five different academic values mentioned earlier (academic freedom, advancing knowledge, academic rigor, social justice, emotional well-being). Students also completed a unique, self-made scale where they were required to choose a behavior (out of a selection of five total choices) to a moral academic conflict, which would, in turn, reflect the participants' most cherished academic values.

For example, the students read a scenario (e.g., Your university/college invites a professor with extreme political views, from your perspective, to give a public lecture to students and faculty) and are asked to choose (of five responses) how they would most likely respond to this scenario:

1. Let them come. They have every right to express their opinions, regardless of the content. (Corresponding to academic freedom.)

2. If this leads to an increased understanding of the issues and draws us closer to discovering the truth, let them come. (Corresponding to advancing knowledge.)

3. If the majority of students feel emotionally unsafe or uncomfortable with the speaker's content, it should be canceled. (Corresponding to emotional well-being.)

4. This person has no right to come. Their views are offensive, and we need to take a stand against people who hold views like this. (Corresponding to social justice.)

5. If the talk challenges the audience with very high-level content and promotes further introspection, it is worth it. (Corresponding to academic rigor.)

Each of the five responses directly corresponded with one of the five academic values presented in the budget allocation measure. Depending on their responses to the two scales, we were able to compare differences in value prioritizations by gender, generation, department/major, personality, and conservatism.

What We Found

It is important to address what we can and what we cannot say from these results. First, our findings were correlational rather than causational. Second, it is unclear if the results of our study directly correspond to behavior in the real world. Three, our measures of academic values are novel and need replication.

With these limitations in mind, we generally found (as suggested by Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018) that modern college students put a lot of emphasis on their own emotional well-being as a value of their education. In this study, while most students were "Generation Z" (born after 1995), I had substantial data from older students (aka "Boomers"). Thus, I was able to compare the academic values of younger adult students versus older adult students.


  • For Generation-Z (i.e., younger) students, the balance between advancing knowledge and emotional well-being were held with equal weight (and rated the highest of all values). This is compared with older students, who generally rated the advancement of knowledge as higher in value.
  • Of all the variables at play, political conservatism was the best predictor of social justice scores and emotional well-being values. As conservatism scores decreased (i.e., becoming more liberal-minded), scores on the valuing of social justice and emotional well-being increased.
  • From a personality standpoint, emotional stability positively predicted advancing knowledge and negatively predicted emotional well-being scores. Agreeableness positively predicted emotional well-being scores but negatively predicted advancing knowledge and academic freedom.
  • Social science majors scored higher in valuing social justice and emotional well-being, while "hard" science majors scored higher in advancing knowledge and academic rigor.
  • Male students rated advancing knowledge and academic rigor as higher in value and scored lower on social justice and emotional well-being compared with female students.

Putting the Pieces Together

The results support many of Lukianoff and Haidt's (2018) claims regarding the political and social attitudes of university students. Specifically, conservatism played a central role in predicting all academic values and was the most salient predictor of social justice and emotional well-being values (along with emotional stability). Further, generational differences in the valuing of social justice and emotional well-being were present.

Importantly, we demonstrated and now argue that Lukinoff, Haidt, and other commenters have missed a critical factor: gender.


Over the past 50 years, the gender demographics of college campuses have changed enormously (Duffin, 2019). In the 1970s, the ratio between men and women was 58 to 42 percent, while a recent poll in 2017 showed that women now comprise approximately 56 percent of the college population (Semuels, 2017). In other words, the gender majority of college students in the United States has reversed over the past 50 years.

This demographic change matters because extensive research has shown substantial differences in personality traits, conservatism, and value orientation between men and women. Women tend to be more liberal than men are (Eagly, Diekman, & Koenig, 2004; Chaturvedi, 2016), score higher on measures of agreeableness and openness (Schmitt et al., 2009; Schmitt et al., 2016), have lower scores on emotional stability (Schmitt et al., 2009; Schmitt et al., 2016), and the ratio of women to men in the social sciences (e.g., sociology, psychology, anthropology) is far greater than the ratio in the "hard" sciences (e.g., engineering, mathematics, chemistry) (Zafar, 2017).

Importantly, the current research demonstrated that:

1. Higher agreeableness predicted higher ratings on social justice and emotional well-being and lower on advancing knowledge and academic rigor.

2. Lower emotional stability predicted higher scores on emotional well-being and social justice and lower scores on advancing knowledge and academic rigor.

3. Lower scores on conservatism predicted higher scores on emotional well-being and social justice and lower on advancing knowledge and academic rigor.

4. Hard science majors scored higher in advancing knowledge and academic rigor, and lower in social justice and emotional well-being.

In other words, the constellation of factors that predicts holding such strong values on emotional well-being and social justice all are conflated with gender; generally, compared with men, women tend to hold these values. Without accounting for gender differences, we miss a central link that appears to connect these disparate trends.

Importantly, shifting gender demographics have not only been occurring among university students, but among professors as well (Finkelstein, Conley, & Schuster, 2016). For comparison, women in 2013 held 49.2 percent of all faculty positions, when, in 1993, women only held 38.6 percent (Finkelstein et al., 2016). Further, as demonstrated in a paper exploring the academic values of university professors (Planke et al., 2018), female professors' academic values align with the values of female students and male professors' academic values align with male students.

Specifically, men (students and professors) rate advancing knowledge and academic rigor higher than women, and score lower on social justice and emotional well-being (Planke et al., 2018). Of course, there is variability within gender; however, it appears that the values and behaviors seen on college campuses cannot be fully understood without seriously taking gender into account.

Note: To be clear: Personally, I firmly believe that the increasing rate of women in higher education has been and is a good thing. I am simply attempting to try to explain what students believe and why this may be the case. Further, certain factors, such as socioeconomic status and sexual orientation, may interact with the findings we have presented and should be explored in future research.

Bottom Line

Although talking about gender differences is often controversial and complex, we must address those differences when they present themselves. But, of course, gender differences comprise only a slice in a much larger story. Due to living in an era of exacerbated political polarization, exacerbated mental health problems of young people (American Psychological Association [APA], 2019), increased liberal presence on college campuses (Cardiff & Klein, 2005; Duffin, 2019; Pew Research Center, 2019), and increased anxiety regarding future job prospects, student debt, and environmental catastrophes, it is understandable that emotional well-being, across gender, has become a primary concern for college students.

The need to talk about and cope with emotional pain should not be perceived as a combatant to the pursuit of truth. The exacerbated emotional suffering of young people, regardless of the cause, is simply a reality of our time, and schools must adjust for the students whom they serve. But most importantly, from my perspective and what I believe to be at the core of Lukianoff and Haidt's (2018) argument, is that caring for and supporting the emotional lives of students should not be based on the assumption and premise that (1) discomfort, anxiety, pain, and sadness are problematic states of being which need to be avoided, and (2) some ideas or perspectives are too taboo or emotionally painful to talk about or listen to.

Rather, universities and professors must continue to take upon the challenge of understanding the emotional struggles of their students (and the historical and social forces driving these struggles) while also using their own authority to challenge subjective emotional experience so as to support these same students to harness their emotions and drives so that they may direct that energy toward finding the elusive, complicated, and uncertain things called justice and truth.

Last, the student from my class a few years ago who expressed outrage about our campus hosting a politically questionable speaker was not wrong; if anything, she has a valuable perspective that must be taken seriously and appreciated. However, a sea of nodding heads is wrong. "Intellectual heterogeneity," as Glenn Geher (the guy in charge of this blog) once said, "is the engine that drives academia" (Haidt, 2016a).

Without diverse perspectives, disagreement, discomfort, and dialogue, the moral compass between right and wrong can become too rigid and binary. The question is not whether John Watson or Philip Zimbardo or whoever should have been or should not have been invited to a college campus; the question is whether universities remain bastions for ideas and voices across the broad spectrum of the human experience. And this is what freedom of speech in higher education should be all about.

My bottom line is four-fold:

1. We need to support diverse opinions in higher education, and as a step, that means finding ways to increase communication across disparate areas in the academy.

2. Changing demographics within the academy are likely altering values that underlie the university experience in substantial ways.

3. We need to continue fostering the idea that universities are designed to support students in how to think rather than what to think.

4. Universities and teachers must trust and help their students believe that they are capable of and can learn to manage and face the inevitable pains, hardships, and discomforts in life.


Zachary Rausch is currently a Master's student in Psychological Sciences at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His interests, broadly speaking, are in evolutionary psychology, cultural psychology, and the psychology/sociology interface. You can email him here.


*Note that a more detailed summary of these findings is summarized in a manuscript that is currently under review at an academic journal. Some of the material in this post is taken from our manuscript.

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