Do Women Still Need Title IX?

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On Tuesday, the New York Times revealed that many college athletic departments have been using sneaky accounting to skirt Title IX. By double-counting female athletes, counting male players as female players, and otherwise manipulating rosters, schools have been making an end-run around the landmark law, which requires publicly funded institutions to offer male and female students equal educational opportunities.

Title IX's athletic requirements have long been a flashpoint for debate, but only recently have the law's sexual harassment directives drawn equal attention. Privileging football over field hockey isn't the only way to discriminate on the basis of sex -- according to Title IX, sexual harassment can also limit female students' access to equal education. This is what a group of Yale students and alumni argued in a complaint they filed with the Department of Education last month. The complainants cited a string of publicly misogynist incidents on Yale's campus as well as private experiences of sexual assault. The University's allegedly inadequate response to both types of behavior, they argued, created a hostile environment for women at Yale.

This complaint has struck some critics as fishy. As Peter Berkowitz noted in the Wall Street Journal, women undergraduates outnumber men at Yale, one of the world's most progressive institutes of higher education. The school is flush with forums on discrimination and committees to examine sexism on campus. Plus, even without the legal incentive of Title IX, Yale has every reason not to discriminate against its female students.

yalesluts.300.jpgYet the past few years have seen a troubling string of news items from New Haven, with fraternity pledges chanting "No means yes, yes means anal" outside freshman dorms and holding a sign reading "We love Yale sluts" outside the campus Women's Center (pictured) and sports teams circulating an infamous email that ranked incoming freshman women on how drunk a guy would need to be to sleep with them. Yale has also come under scrutiny for its sexual assault policies -- in 2004, the Department of Education launched an investigation into whether the University was accurately reporting the number of assaults on campus. Yale amended its reporting policies and created a resource center for victims, but the school's feminist community has continued to call for reform to Yale's sexual assault grievance procedures.

The fact that even schools with the best intentions and greatest resources can have less-than-enlightened gender relations on campus can be difficult to reconcile with the reality that U.S. women -- largely thanks to Title IX's 1972 passage -- earn more undergraduate and advanced degrees than men. While the prevailing worry of late in educational circles has been the "end of men," the government is tasked with the tricky job of enforcing a gender-equality law passed when many schools had just begun accepting women and institutional sexism was rampant.

Assistant Secretary Russlyn Ali, who heads the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, has taken a controversial approach to this task by ramping up enforcement in a major way. Days after announcing an investigation into the Yale complaint, Ali rolled out a new push to combat sexual violence on college campuses. In the past few weeks, a slew of similar Title IX investigations have surfaced at schools including Princeton, UVA, Duke, Harvard Law School, and Notre Dame.

When Ali took office, she hired more than 100 additional OCR employees and immediately put them to work. She has upped the number of investigations the office undertakes -- and has also, for whatever reason, seen a large increase in the number of complaints filed -- and resolution of these cases jumped 11 percent during Ali's first year on the job. Last year, she drew fire for rescinding a Bush-era policy that allowed schools to demonstrate compliance with Title IX's athletic requirements simply by issuing a survey to female students. She also signaled an intent to use Title IX to crack down on bullying in schools.

Ali has drawn plenty of criticism for her proactive enforcement, but interestingly, her actions have seemed to fly under the partisan radar. Most negative reactions have originated in civil libertarian distaste for government intrusion and concern for free speech. Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the controversial War Against Boys, worries that when applied to students' sexual relationships, Title IX could "justify a kind of sexual McCarthyism." But even Hoff Sommers acknowledges that here's been little to no organized conservative response to Ali's makeover of the OCR.

After all, Title IX occupies a privileged place in the history of American equality. One of the law's most high-profile cheerleaders is none other than Sarah "Barracuda" Palin.

Yet, as the New York Times' athletic investigation and the Yale complaint show, it is possible for women to be both advancing and held back, just as it's possible for men to be both falling behind in college degrees and continuing to dominate boardrooms. Yes, much of the low-hanging gender-parity fruit has been picked, but ratios and statistics don't distinguish between women's presence and how they are treated. Over the years, Title IX has proven itself a strong, adaptable law, one that can surely address the nuanced problems with campus gender relations today -- which is why it's just as vital now as it was 40 years ago.

Image credit: Yale Women's Center

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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