Office for Civil Rights helped, hindered Title IX

Republican and Democratic Administrations have different track records for Office of Civil Rights enforcement of Title IX. (The OCR is part of the Executive Branch.) Three videos in this blog — with former OCR officials Martin Gerry, Cindy Brown, and Deborah Ashford — give a taste of that divide from the 1970s under the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations.

After Title IX became law in 1972, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) had to write regulations to implement the law. That’s standard procedure, usually accomplished in a matter of months for many laws, but the Nixon and Ford Administrations dragged their feet on Title IX. Three years passed before HEW finalized the regulations. That gave foes of Title IX time to lobby against it and an excuse for school districts to do nothing about sex discrimination. College athletic directors — especially football coaches — and their Congressional allies tried to exclude the misnamed “revenue-producing sports” like men’s football and basketball from Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination.

Martin Gerry served in HEW’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) during those years as deputy director and then director of OCR. He says he “fought hard” for the regulations and credits President Gerald Ford for outmaneuvering the football coaches.

Cindy Brown (Photo by Sherry Boschert)

Cindy Brown (Photo by Sherry Boschert)

Some of Gerry’s contemporaries tell a different story, lambasting the OCR for neglecting enforcement of civil rights (including Title IX). Cindy Brown, who worked with Gerry in OCR in the late 1960s, left government to work with the Children’s Defense Fund and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, where she battled Gerry over enforcement of civil rights mainly related to race, ethnicity, and national origin. She also participated in the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, which fought with OCR for Title IX enforcement. Her former friend from OCR, Gerry, by now was considered one of the bad guys by civil rights activists.

In terms of the Title IX regulations, the glass is half full/half empty during the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Half full, because they did finally produce regulations. Half empty because the regulations were so slow in coming, slow enough that Office of Education staffer Holly Knox, who acted as an advisor during creation of the regulations, concluded that OCR under Nixon and Ford “was not interested in enforcing a law against discrimination against women.” So she left in 1974 to found a non-profit organization that pushed the government to protect Title IX and enforce the law.

Knox’s Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER), part of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, issued a scathing report of OCR’s inaction in 1977: “Stalled at the Start: Government Action on Sex Bias in the Schools.” PEER studied OCR records from June 1972 to October 1976.

Of the 871 complaints about sex discrimination in elementary and secondary schools (not including higher education) sent to OCR from people in all 50 states in 1972-1976, the agency lost 13 letters and resolved only 7% of the remaining 858 complaints within 6 months, despite a requirement that complaints be investigated “promptly.” Even in the 20% of cases “resolved” by fall of 1976, OCR typically made only a cursory investigation consisting of little more than a few letters back and forth with the school or district. Months before the 1976 presidential election, Gerry put a moratorium on OCR action on sex discrimination to avoid any controversy in the press, the Washington Post reported. The new OCR team that came in under President Carter in 1977 found two boxes containing around 600 unanswered letters about sex discrimination.

By the time Cindy Brown rejoined the OCR under the Carter Administration, the Office faced multiple lawsuits and was in contempt of court for inaction on a huge backlog of civil rights cases. Brown steered OCR into settlements and guided it through one of its most important Title IX projects — developing an interpretation of the regulations regarding athletics so that schools and colleges no longer had an excuse to continue discriminating in their sports programs. Because of the time she’d spent as an OCR outsider, she found herself in the position of being sued and deposed by friends and former colleagues when she returned to being an OCR insider. She didn’t mind.

Deborah Ashford came to the U.S. Office of Education in 1976 and worked to eliminate discrimination in vocational education programs. In 1978 the Office for Civil Rights recruited her to work with Brown and others on implementation and enforcement of Title IX. She credits the “sisterhood” of women’s advocates in Washington with helping her get established and boosting her career in ways that benefitted Title IX and girls across America.

What Brown’s and Ashford’s OCR accomplished for Title IX changed history. Setbacks lay ahead, however, under a new Republican Administration with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. But that’s another story…

Leave a Reply