University of Cincinnati Sued Over Physics Lab Gender ‘Segregation’

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

The University of Cincinnati is being sued by a 19-year-old pre-med student who is arguing that the school segregates men and women in its physics laboratories.

According to the lawsuit filed in the US District Court in Cincinnati, the student, Casey Helmicki, would like the school to be required to allow men and women to work together while in any class or educational program.  Helmicki said the school is in violation of federal Title IX provisions as well as the equal protection clause included in the 14th amendment, adding that, “as a woman in science, studying chemistry in neuroscience, it was alarming that a school like UC would allow something like this to be permitted in the classroom.”

Helmicki went on to say that on her first day at the school, she was informed that she could only work with other women and that “women shouldn’t be working with men in science.” She called the experience “demoralizing.”

The university, the former Title IX coordinator at the school, two professors, and a teaching assistant who allegedly refused to allow Helmicki to work with male students have all been named as defendants in the lawsuit.  Although the head of the physics department at the university maintains that no such policy exists at the school requiring students to be segregated by gender, Helmicki’s professor had noted in an email dating from September that “having all female groups is better.”

The professor, identified as Larry Bortner, defended his beliefs in an email to former Title IX Coordinator Jyl Shaffer, saying that for the most part, physicists are males and that studies have proven that women work better in small groups of three or four in which more females are present than males.  He said that in an effort to help females do better in his class, he told all of his instructors to rearrange the groups if one existed containing one female and three males.

Shaffer, who has since resigned, wrote back to Bortner multiple times, saying that while the efforts were not “inherently inequitable,” she would need to ensure that students did not feel discriminated against.  She also suggested the addition of an “opt-out” alternative for students.

Staff members were then asked to research the topic and determine whether single-sex programs could be implemented at the school.  Helmicki’s attorney, Chris Finney, maintains that it is unconstitutional and not legal for higher education.

The federal court has given the university until July 25 to respond to the lawsuit, reports Emma Ockerman for Motto.

“It is our understanding that this problem was isolated, lasted only a short period of time and was corrected. It is certainly not our policy to segregate students by gender. It is our goal to foster the best learning environment for our students by providing options when forming groups. We will continue to talk to our instructors to make sure they are following these guidelines,” said Ken Petren, dean of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, which houses the physics department.