While a federal judge has ruled that Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania doesn't provide equal opportunities in sports for men and women, the state school isn't alone in violating the federal law -- known as Title IX -- guaranteeing such equity.
Across Pennsylvania, many schools don't meet federal standards, according to a report issued last year the Women's Law Project, a Pennsylvania organization that provided free attorneys for the Slippery Rock students. The report on 112 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania concluded they "are failing miserably in providing proportionate athletic opportunity for women."
It said that in 2003-04, the colleges and universities came up 8,057 short of the positions needed for women.
Two events called attention to Slippery Rock: It tried to drop two women's sports while it still wasn't viewed as in compliance with the law that was passed 34 years ago, and students sued.
Judy Sweet, senior vice president for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said not many schools drop women's sports, adding:
"The lawsuits have all for the most part supported the women who have filed suit when teams have been dropped."
Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any education program receiving federal financial assistance.
For athletics, regulations require colleges and universities to meet at least one of three criteria in their athletics program or risk losing federal funding:
Number of men and women participating in athletics is in proportion to their overall enrollment. A 5 percent leeway is permitted.
Where one sex is underrepresented, there is demonstrated history and practice of expanding programs and being responsive to the group's interests and abilities.
Where one sex is underrepresented and the school cannot show a history and practice of expanding programs, it can be shown that the interests of the that sex have been accommodated.
Because there are three ways to meet the standard, it's hard to say exactly how many make or miss the mark.
Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment of the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group founded in 1972, the year Title IX was passed, said, "I think it's fair to say that very, very few universities comply with the proportionality prong of the test."
In the fiscal year that began in October, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education has received 123 Title IX complaints for athletics. Since 1994, the number of complaints in athletics has ranged from 69 to 140 a year.
The regulations for Title IX have been pretty much set since U.S. Department of Education guidance in 1979 and a 1996 case lost by Brown University.
In the Slippery Rock case, 12 female athletes filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming discrimination after the university dropped women's swimming and water polo in a cost-cutting move. The university, which was facing a deficit, also eliminated five men's sports.
On Friday, U.S. District Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the women but noted that she would consider a modification if the university followed through with proposed changes to comply with the law.
Women students at Slippery Rock had a mixed reaction to the decision.
Erin Crippinger, 20, of Jeannette, is a junior majoring in sport management at Slippery Rock. She said the women's swimming team was the reason she elected to enroll there, but she dropped the sport after the 2004-05 season due to injury.
"I know that swimming is not a real popular sport, but I don't think that means we shouldn't have a chance," she said. "I know a lot of people who came here just to swim."
Christina Collins, 24, of Imperial, is a senior at Slippery Rock majoring in human resources management. She does not participate in athletics and rarely attends university competitions. And she said she understands that economics must play a part in deciding how much a university can afford to do.
"I would want to see how many students are involved in it," she said. "Of course, they might not be too important to me, but I'm sure they're important to other people."
She suggested the university use the same approach with athletics that it is with her major of human resources, which is being phased out.
"Don't make a promise to students and have them come to the school and then say, 'Oh, sorry, we don't have your program any more," she said. "They should give them what they promised."
Slippery Rock University spokesman Gordon Ovenshine declined to comment.
The Women's Law Project cited Penn State University's main campus as one of the best large schools for athletic equity in terms of opportunities.
Penn State spokesman Jeff Nelson said the school has 29 varsity sports -- 15 for men and 14 for women. Most of the money for athletics comes from football and men's basketball.
"Because of the success of those programs and the revenues they've been able to generate, Penn State has been in a position where we were able to add women's soccer as a varsity sport [in 1994] and we have not had to look at cutting any sports, which I know some schools have had to do," Mr. Nelson said.
Although many schools are not in compliance, the changes in athletic participation by women have been dramatic.
Some place the number of women participating in college sports at as low as 31,000 in 1972. NCAA figures show more than 166,000 female student athletes in 2004-05.
"Title IX has promoted enormous advances in women's opportunities throughout every aspect of education, but we still have a long way to go before the law's promise of true gender equity is achieved," said Ms. Samuels.
Staff Writer Dan Majors contributed to this report. Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.