Advocacy group sues Pa. universities over athletic opportunities for women

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A complaint filed by a women's advocacy group alleges that the majority of universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are violating Title IX.

The Women's Law Project filed a complaint Wednesday asking the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to address what the group calls "the historical and ongoing failure of these universities to provide athletic opportunities to their female students."

The nine universities named in the complaint are Bloomsburg, Cheyney, Clarion, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville and Shippensburg.

"All of our universities take their responsibilities under Title IX very seriously," said State System spokesman Kenn Marshall. "Despite being faced with changing demographics in the state -- which have resulted in relatively flat or even declining enrollments across the system -- as well as significant, long-term financial challenges, all of the institutions have made progress toward achieving gender equity in the area of athletic participation."

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex by educational institutions receiving federal funding. The athletic opportunity piece of the law requires that schools fulfill one part of a three-prong test: providing women with athletic opportunities in proportion to their school population; showing a historic and continuing practice of increasing women's athletic opportunities; or accommodating the athletic interests of women.

"We are committed to achieving the appropriate balance so all of our students have equal opportunities to participate in the entire range of activities, including athletics, that help make the complete college experience so rewarding," Mr. Marshall said.

Each university identified by the Women's Law Project has women participating in sports at rates lower than their proportion of the undergraduate population, ranging from a 4.52 percent gap at Shippensburg to a 15.66 percent gap at Bloomsburg.

At Clarion, for example, women made up 60 percent of the undergraduate population in the 2012-13 school year but 47.4 percent of the population of varsity athletes. At Clarion, the complaint says, 114 additional female athletes would be needed to achieve parity.

"These nine universities are missing over 900 athletic opportunities for women," said Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney for the Women's Law Project, which has offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

There is no set percentage that universities have to fall within to be considered in compliance with Title IX, said Deborah Brake, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in Title IX. "There certainly is wiggle room," she said. "It's not so much that there is any one number -- it's more of a case by case analysis."

Ms. Frietsche said that in addition to the lack of proportionality of women's athletic participation, many schools have not shown improvement over the last 10 years.

The complaint also notes that seven of the schools have active women's club rugby teams, which Ms. Frietsche said indicates evidence of unmet women's interest in varsity sports.

"This is not a case where you can say that nobody who cares about sports who is not already on a varsity team," she said.

Rugby is considered an "emerging sport" by the NCAA. Brown University elevated rugby to varsity status this week, becoming the 11th school to do so.

Ms. Frietsche said that the Women's Law Project chose to address the issue through a federal complaint rather than a federal lawsuit in hopes that the complaint could be resolved faster.

A lawsuit against Slippery Rock University that the Women's Law Project filed in 2006 took four years before a final settlement was approved in 2010.

Critics of Title IX have complained that rather than increasing women's sports opportunities, the law too often results in cutting men's sports to achieve proportionality with women's sports.

Universities in the State System have struggled with funding in recent years, facing decreased state funding and falling numbers of high school graduates. But -- speaking generally and not about this complaint specifically -- Ms. Brake said that school funding challenges do not affect Title IX compliance rules.

"It's not a complaint that will make them spend more -- it's more about fairness and non-discrimination," she said.

Ms. Frietsche did not have any estimation of a timeline for federal investigation of the complaint.

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308. First Published April 17, 2014 11:22 AM

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