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Indira Samarasekera, the president of the University of Alberta, was right to show concern for the future education of Canada's young men, the subject of a front-page story by Elizabeth Church in yesterday's Globe.

The barbs that have been directed at Ms. Samarasekera are unwarranted and shortsighted. She warned that the country's universities are unwittingly building a "demographic bomb": for the first time, men are noticeably underrepresented at Canadian universities, accounting for only 42 per cent of their students despite making up half the nation's population.

She worries "that we'll wake up in 20 years and we will not have the benefit of enough male talent at the heads of companies and elsewhere," she said in October. And she promised to use her status as a South Asian, female university president "to be an advocate for young white men, because I can be. No one is going to question me when I say we have a problem."

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In that last prognosis, she was wrong. A group of students calling themselves the Samarasekera Response Team papered the campus with mocking slogans such as "Only White Men Can Save our University!" (They were soon collared by campus security, but were not disciplined.)

Among them was Derek Warwick, a fourth-year Women's Studies major, who said Ms. Samarasekera's comments were "uncalled for" and showed "a complete lack of understanding of our context today." He added that men "can be their own advocates" because "it's a white man's world."

But Ms. Samarasekera and other university presidents understand that, in an equitable, multicultural and productive society, a helping hand must be given to any group that lags behind, even if it was once a front-runner.

That women hold only 5 per cent of the country's top jobs and are, on average, still paid less than men are serious concerns that require attention, but Mr. Warwick wrongly assumes history will simply repeat itself. The changes wrought by a demographic imbalance in higher education - on governments, industries and families - will take decades to reveal themselves, by which point it will be too late to intervene.

Granted, Ms. Samarasekera's decision to highlight white men rather than men in general seems more political than policy-minded. But it was not unfair of her to note how easily extra supports for white students are stigmatized as helping the rich get richer - a generalization that does not stand up to examination.

Ms. Samarasekera's detractors have misread the context. Men have not managed to close the enrolment gap, or to draw their high school grades even with women's. And jobs that attract hordes of high-school-educated men, such as those in Alberta's oil fields and Canada's automotive industry, are dwindling.

Canada's leaders want to build a more innovative economy. Equal numbers of bright, educated women and men are needed to drive it.

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