Title IX: Dartmouth reverses course, reinstates women’s athletic teams

Faced with a potential lawsuit from students, the college decides to add back programs it had cut in July amid financial concerns during the pandemic.
By: | February 1, 2021
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Enrollment of women at Dartmouth College from 2019-20: 49.06%. Percentage of women athletes after cuts to programs in 2020: 46.23%. The difference: 2.83%.

That became a simple math problem for a group of determined Ivy League students. It also became a big problem for this heralded institution.

Last July, when Dartmouth eliminated several men’s and women’s athletics teams, it did not level the imbalance in the number of athletes competing. That gap, its women athletes argued, was a violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at institutions that receive federal funding. They threatened to file a lawsuit in December. A little over a month later, they’ve come to a settlement.

Dartmouth has agreed to reinstate all of the programs it had cut – men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s lightweight rowing. In the end, the divide proved too great to overcome even after those cuts – 47 more athletes on the men’s side – according to the firm that represented those athletes, Bailey Glasser.

“This is a huge victory for the women at Dartmouth who stood up for their rights, the entire Dartmouth community, and everyone who cares about gender equity and the law,” said Arthur Bryant of Bailey Glasser and lead counsel for the female student-athletes. “Dartmouth publicly announced it was eliminating teams to comply with Title IX when their elimination flagrantly violated Title IX.”

The announcement prompted Dartmouth to release a joint statement both on behalf of the college and the women’s teams that called for the institution to perform a gender equity review as well as an assurance it would comply with Title IX.

In an email to the Dartmouth community, President Philip Hanlon addressed the financial constraints facing the college during the summer – projected losses of $150 million, according to several reports – and said the COVID-19 pandemic played a part in the decision to eliminate teams and provide “more flexibility in undergraduate admissions.” In so doing, however, Dartmouth said that “elements of the data used to confirm continued Title IX compliance may not have been complete.”

One of the oddities uncovered in their investigation, however, was that according to Bailey Glasser, Dartmouth had been out of compliance prior to the cuts, when women comprised 49.06% of undergraduate enrollees but only 44.87% of athletes. The elimination of the five programs did close the gap, but not enough. Though 47 athletes might not seem significant, at Dartmouth that is more than all of the athletes in the three women’s sports combined, the agency said.

Bryant said Dartmouth is among a number of institutions since the pandemic began that have tried to cut women’s athletics but would have been outside Title IX compliance, including East Carolina University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and William & Mary College.

“Schools need to get the message: Title IX has been the law for almost 50 years. It guarantees women equal opportunities, athletic financial aid, and treatment,” Bryant said. “If schools don’t provide that, the women can sue — and they will win.”

Maggie Deppe-Walker, co-captain of Dartmouth women’s swimming and diving team, said the process provided some valuable learning lessons.

“After hearing about other schools’ recent Title IX cases, I came to understand that gender equality is still an issue, even in 2021,” she said. “I also learned that students truly do have a voice that can be used to question even the largest decisions, but that it takes dedication, persistence, and creativity to be heard. I know now that it is not a conflict of interest to stand up to your school on the matter of gender equality, but that, instead, it is a way to make the school you love a place you are proud of.”

The victory was resounding for the women athletes at Dartmouth, who will have their programs reinstated at least through the 2024-25 academic year. They will begin to return to practice as long as it is determined safe given COVID-19 protocols. Their coaches, who were let go during the process, can all return to their positions if they wish.

“It has been so satisfying to see such a fruitful response to our activism,” said Kristen Chen, a junior on the Dartmouth women’s golf team, one of 19 athletes who were on the legal team. “I really hope that my teammates’ and my willingness to stand up helps to set a precedent for further re-evaluation of gender equity, in general, at Dartmouth.”

Dartmouth said that would happen, and it plans conduct a compliance review to gauge where and how those determinations for cuts were made. It will specifically look at athletic department procedures, with a review from Price Waterhouse Coopers, to “strengthen compliance execution and oversight.” The NCAA and Ivy League also will be performing their own review, at the request of the college.