Assumption College has abandoned a plan to drop its men's and women's track and field teams, after concluding, under pressure from the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, that doing so would have violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The private college in Massachusetts cited financial reasons in announcing this spring that it was dropping the teams. Heidi Paluck, director of public affairs for the college, said that the two programs were established three years ago on a "pilot" basis with the idea that they would raise enough funds to become self-sufficient. When that didn't happen, the college decided to drop the teams.
Shortly after making that announcement, Paluck said, officials from the civil rights office contacted college administrators and informed them that dropping a women's team might put Assumption out of compliance with Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funds.
Because the college has a heavily female student body and has not continually expanded its sports offerings for women, its only hope of complying with Title IX is through "prong three" of the law's participation standard, which requires an institution to show that it is meeting the athletics interests and abilities of its female students. Because Assumption dropped the teams without having sought to gauge whether there was sufficient interest among female athletes in competing in track, Paluck said, officials from Assumption and OCR agreed that the decision to drop the teams put the college out of compliance.
Paluck said that Assumption plans to fully satisfy the civil rights office's concerns by conducting a survey this fall to measure the interests of female students and prospective students. But the college decided not to wait until then to reinstate the men's and women's track teams, which it plans to fully subsidize, doubling what it spent on the teams this year and improving its coaching staffs and facilities.
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a legal advocacy group that has represented female athletes at several institutions whose teams have been dropped, issued a news release Friday in which it took credit for Assumption's change of heart. The legal group sent Assumption a letter in mid-May in which it threatened a lawsuit if the institution did not reinstate the teams. “We are delighted that the school has agreed to immediate reinstatement of the teams," Leslie A. Brueckner, a lawyer for TLPJ, said in the news release. "We were confident that we were right on the law, and the school apparently agreed."
Paluck disputed the idea that the trial lawyers' group had prompted its decision. "The conversations with OCR happened before TLPJ got involved," she said. "This was in the works before the lawsuit was threatened."