I was born six months after Title IX was enacted; I have not known a world in which this civil rights legislation did not exist. I think of it as a bit of unearned good fortune. I know from experience that not everyone feels this way.
During my two decades in higher education, including stints overseeing sexual violence prevention efforts at colleges and universities, I’ve lived through the chaos caused by years of regulatory churn, and the headaches and heartache this caused to administrators and advocates trying follow the law and do right by students. And I’ve borne witness to the pain and bewilderment of many sexual assault survivors who hoped Title IX would offer them more or better tools for holding institutions and individuals accountable for the harm they experienced.
Now, 50 years later, despite these imperfections I do still believe that we, as a country, are better because of Title IX.
The benefits of Title IX
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Title IX has been used to fight against unequal treatment based on sex in all aspects of education, from admissions to academics, to athletics to housing, health insurance and benefits, and has been a weapon against sexual harassment, discrimination of pregnant and parenting students, intimate partner violence, stalking, and hopefully soon sexual orientation and gender identity.
I have 25 years of experience working with individuals that have experienced harm on our campuses related to sexual and gender-based violence and I believe every single student has a right to experience all the benefits and the richness of the education opportunities they want to pursue. It’s easy to forget that this hasn’t always been the case. My own mother, in her first year at college as a married student became pregnant—with me. An ambitious and bright student, she faced open ridicule and inflexibility from faculty for her pregnancy.
Facing these academic headwinds and sexist expectations about parenting, she would drop out after completing the first year and take another 16 years to complete her degree, at night, while juggling a low-wage job and parenting, because those were the ones open to a woman without a college degree. My father—the other student in this story? He graduated on time.
The past decade of Title IX regulatory churn has yielded a number of positive results for students, and administrations, but it has also left a wake of queasiness and dread for administrators, advocates, and students. In too many cases this churn has overshadowed markers of progress and undermined public confidence. If we want students to benefit from their civil rights protections and engage systems of accountability, we need to celebrate the achievements of Title IX while also striving to improve how the law is interpreted, enacted, and enforced.
Here are some things colleges can do to reframe their thinking and continue to move forward in a positive direction.
1. Celebrate institutional successes and progress. Don’t wait to talk about Title IX until there is a policy change to communicate or a high-profile incident to address. Promote positive, concrete actions the institution is already doing—and the people who are doing the work. Institutions could host podcasts or small group conversations with the Title IX Coordinator. The student health center could promote the services it delivers to students that help it ensure equitable access to health care; admissions officers could discuss their efforts to ensure gender equity in the student recruitment and enrollment process. These kinds of institution-wide efforts would yield positive stories, and broaden the understanding of Title IX to apply to all areas of education, not just responding to sexual and gender-based violence.
2. Continue to work to make all areas of this law meaningful for students and engage them in the process. Survivors of sexual and gender-based violence should be meaningfully and appropriately included in institutional efforts to live into the spirit and letter of Title IX, but so also should pregnant and parenting students, peer health advocates, student athletes, and other student leaders who can help bring a holistic perspective on the institution’s strengths and opportunities when it comes to Title IX. Often students feel they’re at the mercy of this legislation rather than seeing it as a powerful tool.
Welcome to middle age, Title IX—so glad to be here with you. We’re older, we creak a bit in the joints, and the gray streaks show up in sunlight. We’re wiser, we’re more powerful, we’ve been shaped by the tragedies and triumphs of the students in our lives. We’re undaunted by the work left to do in the next 50.
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