The battle over Michigan State University’s women-only lounge began with a rival school’s male professor.

Mark Perry, who teaches economics at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus, had stumbled upon a news story about the 91-year-old room in MSU’s sprawling student union. “They’d written about what a great space this is for women,” Perry said. “They can go in and take a nap and not be worried about being bothered.”

He figured it couldn’t be legal. Banning men from a taxpayer-funded study area, Perry thought, could violate Title IX, a federal law meant to protect gender equality on college campuses. So he contacted the school. Nothing changed. He sent a complaint to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in June, but the department would not accept it because Perry had not personally endured discrimination. Then a writer for conservative news site The Daily Caller highlighted his grievance in a July 12 story.

Perry, who blogs about financial issues for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, followed up with a post of his own the next day: “Is it really legal for a public university to blatantly violate the civil rights of 50% of its student body?”

Two days later, MSU quietly shuttered the women-only lounge.

University spokesperson Jason Cody said the timeline is misleading. MSU made plans last spring to turn the lounge into a gender-neutral space to ensure it complied with Title IX, he said. The school had received complaints from male students and worried the lounge’s women-only designation could alienate transgender students. “Thus, we decided on an open lounge for all students, rather than adding a male-only lounge,” Cody wrote in an email.

Female students promptly revolted.

Alyssa Maturen, 19, had just switched dormitories to live closer to the lounge, where she studied at least three times weekly. The sophomore marine biology major preferred the option to MSU’s gender-neutral places, where, she said, male students have interrupted work to ask her out.

She created a petition on July 18, writing, “Together we can take back our lounge.” By Wednesday, nearly 5,000 people had signed it. 

“I'm signing because as a male, I've never felt threatened in a public space in my life, but every woman I know has,” one student commented on the petition. “I've never had to worry about people staring at me or coming up to me and forcing conversation on me while I'm trying to study, but every female college student I know has.”

“I myself have specifically used the women's study lounge when initially going to the co-ed area to study, but then was harassed by a male student especially late in the evening, which continued even once I told him that I couldn't talk and had to get my work done,” wrote another.

“I'm signing this because I use this space and it is one of the few areas that I feel safe,” wrote another.

A brief history of the room, which fits 49 people, remains posted beside the entrance: “The Women’s Lounge, established in 1925, has long been a quiet, secure place for women. It is a safe refuge and serves as a haven for reflection, study and solitude.”

Title IX was passed in 1972, stating that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Still, Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, counsel for education at the National Women’s Law Center, said Title IX has allowed for single-sex housing and single-sex facilities.

Whether MSU’s lounge broke the rules would have to be explored in court. (Vicki Levengood, communications director of Michigan's Civil Rights Department, said only Perry has tried to file a complaint about the lounge.) Some faculty members don’t think Title IX belongs in the discussion.

“It’s disturbing and troubling to see Title IX invoked in this manner,” said Lisa Schwartzman, associate chair and graduate program director of MSU’s philosophy department. “The Women’s Lounge is the one women-only space on campus. The claim that its very existence denies men access to an equal education is absurd.”

Perry disagrees. The Flint professor notes that women now outpace men in college enrollment and degree attainment. Young men, he continued, are more likely to commit suicide."You can make a case that men need more help than women on certain dimensions," he said. "Men are the ones that have fallen behind on college campuses."

But some students say the women-only lounge fills a practical need on MSU's campus.

Last year, a survey found 1 in 4 college women at MSU had experienced sexual assault. The report followed a government investigation into how the university had handled rape cases, which concluded MSU had created a "a sexually hostile environment for numerous students and staff on campus.”

Female students saw the lounge as a place where they wouldn’t bump into their attacker, Maturen said. “There’s this issue that women don’t feel safe on campus," she said, "and a male professor who doesn't even teach on campus says this shouldn’t be here.”

No matter what happens, Onyeka-Crawford said, the dispute should serve as a wake-up call. “If the female students are saying they don't feel safe on campus, the university should listen to those concerns,” she said. “Title IX requires that they do and remedy any environments that are hostile.”

Schwartzman, the philosophy professor, acknowledged that women have come a long way since 1925. “But they are still subject to disproportionately high levels of sexual harassment and assault,” she said. “Viewed in this larger context, having a lounge for women contributes to the promotion of gender equality.”

How does someone give consent to sexual activity? Is it as simple as "no means no" or "yes means yes"? We asked local college students to define the word. (Jayne W. Orenstein and Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

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