Framing Title IX controversies: New or old?

The media and anti-Title IX pundits are fond of framing controversies around campus sexual assaults as a relatively “new” phenomenon that started in 2011. Too often that leaves out the 45-year history of schools and colleges unfairly ignoring, obstinately defying, and only reluctantly complying with Title IX’s mandate to fight sex discrimination in education.

A case in point: The Chronicle of Higher Education, which probably has the best and most extensive Title IX coverage of any media outlet over the years, published a lengthy and very interesting article (available to subscribers), “One Letter Changed Colleges’ Response to Rape Cases.” The article described events since the Office for Civil Rights’ 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which gave educational institutions more detailed guidance on how to prevent and manage sexual harassment/assaults in accord with Title IX. There’s lots of good information in the article, and it is fair to focus on the 2011 letter as “a watershed moment” in raising concern about campus sexual assaults.

But it took far more than that one letter to get us where we are today, and most of the Title IX struggles are the same old struggles, fundamentally. As I point out in my letter to the editor “Article on Title IX Repeated Common Misconceptions” (no paywall here), the headline and parts of the article adopt critics’ “new” frame of reference instead of framing the issue in a more nuanced — and I would argue, more accurate — historical context.

Trying to get colleges to institute prompt and fair grievance procedures for sexual assault and harassment is only a “new” issue if you ignore multiple complaints going back as far as 1977, when female students first won a court ruling that Title IX does cover sexual harassment (in a case that included a rape).

Saying that the 2011 letter was “the first time”  the Office for Civil Rights issued detailed expectations for compliance with Title IX only works if you ignore the dozens of previous letters, policy interpretations, and clarifications from OCR about Title IX. Like, say, the 1997 Sexual Harassment Guidance. Or the 2001 Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance. Or the 2006 “Dear Colleague” letter reminding administrators of the 2001 Guidance. Or the 2008 pamphlet “Sexual Harassment: It’s Not Academic.” Or the 2010 “Dear Colleague” letter about bullying.

Suggesting that the 2011 letter caught education administrators unprepared to handle “new” Title IX responsibilities lets too many of them off the hook for evading long-standing responsibilities. For decades, many schools, colleges, and universities did not even bother to identify a Title IX coordinator at their institution as required by the law’s 1975 regulations, for example. Again and again, educational institutions have acted against sex discrimination (related to employment, athletics, pregnancy, LGBT rights, sexual harassment/assault, or anything else) only when compelled by Title IX advocates, Congress, the courts, and the Office for Civil Rights.

Chicken-Little critics of Title IX complain that since 2011 a ham-fisted federal government has forced schools to become oppressive sex bureaucracies. Using a historical lens, though, the real problem seems to be institutional resistance to change, perpetuating sex discrimination because change is too bothersome or because it threatens the status quo that favors some parties over others. Fortunately, society is changing, moving steadily (if slowly) away from sex discrimination, and will drag the institutions along with it.

Title IX’s history also shows us cycles of progress and backlash. As we enter another era of backlash in the federal government, it may be comforting to know that this, too, shall change. But that’s fodder for a future blog post.

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