In handing down a 69-page ruling this week against Brown University, U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Pettine sent an important message to Harvard and other colleges about women, equality and sports.
Pettine found that Brown was in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX says that schools must provide "equal athletic opportunity" to male and female athletes.
Brown was sued by members of women's gymnastics and volleyball teams when their funding was eliminated in 1991. The university argued in court that because its athletics program offers unusually wide opportunity to both male and female athletes (there are 16 men's and 17 women's varsity teams), the school was not guilty of any discrimination.
Brown acknowledged in court that 62 percent of its varsity athletes were men and that women's teams did not receive the same funding and support as men's teams. The University then argued that somehow this was "normal" because women don't have the same interest in sports that men do. The university also noted that some women's teams were supported by private donations, not university funds.
To his credit, Judge Pettine refused to be swayed by those arguments. There is no excuse for anything less than a 50/50 allocation of money and resources between men's and women's teams. The judge wrote: "At Brown, far more male athletes are being supported at the University-funded varsity level than are female athletes, and thus, women receive less benefit from their intercollegiate varsity program as a whole than do men."
Pettine's is a common-sense, no-nonsense definition of equality, and Harvard would do well to heed it. Harvard has made efforts to improve the resources of women's teams. But men's teams still have more support, and the male/female participation rates of athletes at the College is similar to the 62/38 breakdown at Brown.
Correcting such inequities is difficult because it requires the read-justment of the recruiting procedures that athletic departments like Harvard's have used for decades. In essence, schools need to recruit more female athletes and increase University funding to reflect this change.
It is our hope that such changes will happen at Harvard without the nasty court fights that have plagued Brown.