By Erin Buzuvis
Forty years ago on June 23, President Nixon signed into law the Education Amendments Acts of 1972. This omnibus legislation contained many provisions of political and social significance, including a major appropriation for higher education and student loans, money to improve education for Native Americans, and most controversially, a provision postponing the implementation of court orders related to racial desegregation. There was so much going on in the Education Amendments Act of 1972 that coverage of its passage in the New York Times devoted only a small paragraph near the end to a provision of the act that prohibits sex discrimination in education institutions that received federal funds, the provision numbered Title IX.
Yet despite receiving little recognition at the time, Title IX is the provision with the most enduring effect on American education (the provision delaying desegregation orders was effectively overturned in court later that year). In fact, given Title IX’s small stature, its humble origins, and all that it has overcome and accomplished since then, we celebrate this month as the anniversary of “the little statute that could.”
Title IX has quietly ended restrictive quotas for admission of women to graduate schools and public undergraduate programs, and has opened up jobs on college faculties and administrations to women. Title IX allows girls to take “shop” and boys to take “home ec,” and prohibits high schools from banishing pregnant teens to underfunded alternative programs. Its application to athletics has increased exponentially opportunities for girls and women to play sports in high school and college. It has required schools and colleges to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual violence, and to take seriously reports of instances that occur. That’s quite a list of accomplishments for a law whose passage was reported as an afterthought.
And these accomplishments are even more compelling when you consider all the challenges it has had to endure. Title IX has fought off attempts to weaken it in the courts, in Congress, and in the executive branch. It endures a constant barrage of misinformation promoting the myth that Title IX’s gains have come at the expense of men. For instance, though men’s athletic opportunities have, like women’s, steadily increased over the last 40 years, many blame Title IX for the fact that some schools and colleges choose to concentrate men’s athletic opportunities in the large-roster sport of football rather than offer men a more diverse array of opportunities. In another example, Title IX has come under fire for providing an equal playing field to victims of campus sexual violence in the grievance process against the accused.
It has overcome much, but our indefatigable little statute still has climbing left to do. For all the improvements in athletics, women still lag behind men in the number of athletic opportunities at the high school and college level, as well athletic scholarship dollars. Athletic officials sometimes forget about Title IX, such those at Adrian College in Michigan who constructed an expensive multi-sport facility, but omitted a women’s locker room.
Educational institutions still struggle to comply with the law’s requirements to have clear policies and procedures for reporting, investigating and adjudicating sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus. Pick a school and pretend you need to report an incident of sexual harassment or violence. How long did it take you to find the name and contact information for your school’s Title IX Coordinator, a position that is required by law? Is the process for reporting clear and easy to find? At far too many educational institutions, these basic requirements are being ignored.
Many schools also abuse the narrow permission Title IX regulations allow for single-sex classes in core subjects by segregating girls and boys on the basis of all kinds of stereotypes. This kind of thinking is dangerous for the instinctive reactions it begets, such as the whimsy of the Dallas Independent School District to take only the fifth-grade boys to a theater for a screening of a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Finally, Title IX must struggle to ensure that all students of all sexes, races, sexual orientations, and abilities are protected from sex discrimination in the curriculum, in the enforcement of harassment and sexual violence policies, and in the distribution of athletic opportunities. Clearly, there are challenges that lie ahead for our little statute that could.
On its fortieth anniversary, let’s celebrate how far it’s come and how much it’s endured, and at the same time support Title IX in its climb toward eliminating all manners of sex discrimination in education. I think it can.
Erin Buzuvis is professor of law at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., and co-founder of The Title IX Blog.