When I realized I would be spending three full days at an all men’s college in rural Indiana, and that the theme of my visit would be the #MeToo movement, I felt a moment of panic. When the political science professor who picked me up at the airport told me that half the freshman class were athletes, mostly football players, and that there were no classes after 4 p.m. because of football practice, I feared that I was miscast for this assignment.
I would be visiting several classes and giving several talks, among them a lecture open to the public on “What the #MeToo Movement means for Wabash men.” It would be followed by a panel that featured me and the football coach. What could go wrong?
Wabash is one of three all-male colleges in the country (the others are Morehouse in Atlanta, which is a historically black college, and Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, which is paired with a women’s college). Wabash stands alone in the heart of Trump country, in a central Indiana town of about 15,000. On my first morning in the dining hall, I could see for myself the student athletes, the Little Giants, that are the pride of this Division III school.
Remember William “The Refrigerator” Perry? A defensive lineman in the 1980s, he was a phenomenon because he weighed 350 pounds. Wabash has 15 students on its football squad who are over 300 pounds. They’re not overweight, the football coach told me: “They’re just big dudes.”
They’re also good students. Wabash is a first-rate liberal arts college that has more than its share of admittances to medical school and law school for a student body of under 1,000. If an athlete doesn’t show up for class, one professor told me all she has to do is call the football coach, “and he’ll [the student] be in my office in 10 minutes.”
Football players don’t get a free pass like they do at some of the big-time colleges, and Wabash doesn’t award scholarships for athletic ability. These student athletes are there because they want to play competitively for four more years, but they also want an education.
I was on campus as part of the Woodrow Wilson fellowship program, which sends people from different walks of life to small liberal arts campuses. Wabash seemed an odd pairing for me, something like Eleanor meets Animal House. But that stereotype quickly shattered in my encounters with students. Where else would you find a gender studies class that is all male?
Professor Crystal Benedicks had her students write a paper about where men fit into the #MeToo movement. The most common response was that men should understand it is not an attack on them. They also wrote about the importance of listening empathetically to women, and holding one another accountable for sexist behavior. “They are engaging with these issues wholeheartedly,” says Benedicks.
It was standing room only for the panel discussion on the #MeToo movement as students voiced concerns about not knowing how to read a woman’s mind and worries they could be wrongfully accused. One young man was befuddled by the notion he should ask a woman he has invited out whether it was OK to pay for her meal or movie ticket. One student wondered what he should do when women retirees hit on him when he works as a server.
The football coach, Don Morel, called for a return of old-fashioned courtship, and blamed the hook-up culture for a lot of today’s woes. He faulted colleges that have condoms out in buckets for all to see. “What kind of message does that send?” he asked.
Wabash has what’s known as a “Gentleman’s Rule” that has been in place for 65 years and says, “The student is expected to conduct himself, at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” The #MeToo panel closed with a freshman football player lauding the college’s exceptionalism and leading the students in clapping for themselves for being gentlemen.
The next day students organized a panel among themselves to push back on that applause. They said it encouraged complacency. “If we’re serious about ending sexual harassment, it starts with us, it starts with listening to women,” said one of the four students who took the podium. Another said he was ashamed at having praised all-male education because it doesn’t have the “distraction of women.”
The student forum was organized by the Sphinx Club, a service organization that has pledges wear a sandwich board for a semester, and whenever someone yells “Air Raid,” they must drop to the ground and fire imaginary missiles at the sky.
Washington super lawyer David Kendall graduated from Wabash in 1966 and still recalls the badly scraped nose he had from pushing a peanut on the ground to join the Sphinx Club. “A female professor asked me why I was doing this. Fifty years later, I haven’t had an answer,” he told The Daily Beast.
Kendall is a loyal Wabash alum, but he is not a fan of the all-male environment. “All four years there I felt it should be coed. I spent a lot of time on the road driving to Purdue and DePauw,” the nearest coed universities. “I’m loyal as an alum, Wabash put me on the path to a Rhodes [scholarship], but I always felt it should be coed. Those are my views, and I haven’t strayed from them.”
Kendall isn’t speaking as some East Coast elite. He grew up 60 miles from Crawfordsville, which is home to Wabash, and he never thought he’d go there. But they gave him a four-year scholarship that prepared him for Oxford and then Yale Law School. “I never felt the least bit secondhand,” he says, thanks to the quality of his undergraduate education.
The young man who interviewed me for the school newspaper, appropriately named The Bachelor, said that when he goes on job interviews, he’s asked how after attending an all-male school, can he relate to women in the work place. He says Wabash gives its students the tools they need to succeed in any environment, and he points out he does have a mother, and other women in his life.
He said the all-male environment encourages the students to drop some of the trappings of masculinity and allows them to develop close friendships and empathy. Professor Benedicks says that without women around who usually assume that support role, “the guys form very close friendships. They have to take care of each other, and they do.”
Retired Wabash english professor Warren Rosenberg wrote recently how gratified he is that so many of his colleagues are teaching courses that directly engage masculinity and gender, fulfilling what he calls “the only justification for a college for men in the 21st century.”
Wabash reaffirmed its single-sex status in 1992, a niche that makes it an oddity and can be isolating. It is also an opportunity for these young men to update and define what it is to be a gentleman in the context of the #MeToo movement. Based on what I saw, I’d say that the “Gentlemen’s Rule” has stood the test of time at Wabash.