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Dickinson College

Dickinson strikes plan to cut women's varsity squash following threat of Title IX suit

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Dickinson College

Students at Dickinson College sit on the Adirondack chairs on the Carlisle campus in March.

Dickinson College has axed plans to eliminate women’s squash as a varsity sport after a threat of legal action based on Title IX.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the college community, Dickinson President John E. Jones III said “the college has decided to change its earlier decision, and that women’s squash will continue as a varsity sport going forward.”

Men’s squash is still planned to be cut as a varsity program and move to club status for the next school year.

But cutting women’s varsity squash as well could plunge Dickinson into a fight over Title IX because of gender disparity in the college’s sports participation, an argument raised in a letter sent last month by attorneys representing a group of Dickinson women’s squash players.

In his campuswide letter, Jones wrote that “after careful consideration, while we may not fully agree with the attorneys’ legal analysis, we did decide to re-evaluate our decision and now believe that the better course toward our commitment to gender equity in sports at Dickinson is to maintain the women’s squash program.”

In an agreement written between Dickinson representatives and Arthur H. Bryant, the California-based attorney representing the squash players, the college also pledged to commission a gender equity review to ensure its athletic programs are Title IX compliant in the future, and publicly provide supporting information at regular intervals.

Title IX is the federal statute established in 1972 that prohibits discrimination based on sex at educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance.

The specific standard at issue, however, comes from subsequent regulatory interpretations by the U.S. Department of Education, which require schools to offer “substantially proportionate” opportunities for men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletics.

This means, according to regulatory guidance issued in 1996, that if a hypothetical college has 55% female students and 45% male students, then its varsity rosters should be split roughly the same.

The Education Department said that perfect proportionality is extremely difficult, given changes in student interest in different sports; subsequent court cases have seen judges try to parse whether schools are making a reasonable effort to keep the so-called “participation gap” as narrow as possible within the practical confines of team viability.

As Bryant wrote in his September letter to the college, Dickinson’s most recent report to the education department indicates the college’s student body is just over 57% women, but just under 43% of its varsity athletes are women, a gap of 14 points.

Bryant argued that taking both men’s and women’s squash out of varsity status would increase this gap slightly, given that the move would eliminate 12 men and 12 women from the varsity rolls, with the impact proportionally greater on female athletes since they have fewer positions to begin with.

This concept has been raised in several recent court cases, several of which Bryant cited in his letter to Dickinson. Earlier this year, in Lazor v. University of Connecticut, a federal judge issued an injunction against cutting women’s rowing; at the end of 2020, a nearly identical situation and outcome arose regarding women’s swimming in Ohlensehlen v. University of Iowa.

While the Title IX regulatory standards still leave room for nuance, the judges in those cases wrote, it is clear from the Education Department guidance and previous court precedents that a college changing its athletic offerings in a way that increases the participation gap over its existing baseline presents a strong enough likelihood of violating Title IX—strong enough to warrant an injunction against the program cuts pending a full hearing.

If Dickinson squash players were to file for an injunction against the college, Bryant wrote, such recent rulings indicate they would have a high probability of success.

In a press release issued by Bryant’s firm, Bailey Glasser, Dickinson women’s squash team co-captain Eloise Nimoityn said “I and my teammates are incredibly proud to have held Dickinson accountable, made it reinstate our team, and forced it to achieve gender equity. We hope women nationwide will do the same at their schools. It is time for schools across America to stop discriminating against their female student-athletes.”

The Dickinson situation comes during what the Washington Post described earlier this year as a wave of such Title IX cases across the nation, likely caused by colleges making cuts to sports programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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