Separate but Equal in Physics Lab

Student sues U of Cincinnati after being told she can't have male partner in physics lab. Emails suggest multiple university officials defended the policy, but university now says it was not mandatory.

July 7, 2016
Casey Helmicki

A pre-med student is suing the University of Cincinnati over a practice of prohibiting male and female students from working in the same group in a physics lab. The lawsuit alleges that the university is violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment by engaging in gender-based discrimination.

Casey Helmicki, a rising junior, says a teaching assistant instructed her to work in groups with solely female students on the first day of a physics lab. The teaching assistant told her, “Women shouldn’t be working with men in science,” according to the lawsuit.

Helmicki says she approached Larry Bortner, professor of physics, to air her concerns after class. Bortner allegedly defended the teaching assistant’s actions and said it was the physics department’s policy to separate the sexes in the classroom.

The university maintains that the policy was intended to help female students and was never mandatory, and that Helmicki misunderstood what she was told. But the lawsuit includes the text of email messages from university officials defending the policy.

“Physicists are predominantly male,” Bortner wrote in a Sept. 9 email to Jyl Shaffer, the university's Title IX coordinator at the time. “To change this, we try to make the educational environment open to females. Studies have shown that females do better in small lab groups (three or four) that contain more females than males than more males than females. I train instructors who teach the labs and have told them to rearrange groups if there is one female with three males; if at all possible have all-female groups.”

Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity. The regulations generally forbid single-sex classes, with the two exceptions of physical education classes that involve bodily contact and “portions of classes in elementary and secondary schools which deal exclusively with human sexuality,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website.

“It was hard to believe that something like that would be allowed to happen,” Helmicki told Inside Higher Ed. “It was very shocking and surprising that this was still a thing in 2016.”

Helmicki said she pursued the matter further by meeting with Kathleen Koenig, an associate professor of physics. Koenig insisted that the practice was not supported by the university but did not take any action, she said.

Then, Helmicki said, she met with Shaffer, the Title IX coordinator, who, Helmicki said, did not address her complaint. Shaffer has since resigned and accepted the positions of Title IX coordinator and director of the Office of Institutional Equity at Montana State University. (She did not respond to a request for comment.)

Shaffer offered Bortner encouragement in two emails on Sept. 11 that are quoted in the suit. “The fact that you are being so intentional in how students learn is fantastic,” she wrote in the first email. “From what you have told me there is nothing inherently inequitable about the method you're using to improve learning experiences,” she wrote in the second email.

In a Sept. 27 email, Shaffer offered Bortner recommendations on how to segregate students by sex while refraining from discrimination. In particular, Shaffer suggested that students should be informed in advance of the segregation, and that they should be able to opt out.

Partway through the first semester of her sophomore year, Helmicki decided to switch physics labs despite the disruption to her schedule. “But nothing had changed and I was singled out even more,” she said.

Helmicki said she then learned that Shaffer had filed an official Title IX report in her name without her knowledge or consent. When Helmicki met with Shaffer again, she was informed that the matter had been “completely resolved” and the report would be included in her academic record, according to the lawsuit. Helmicki worried that the complaint would tarnish her academic record when applying to medical school.

The lawsuit names Bortner, Koenig, Shaffer and the teaching assistant as defendants. In addition to the lawsuit, Helmicki has also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the defendants.

University officials directed requests for comment to Kenneth Petren, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who painted a different picture of the situation than the lawsuit.

Petren said he reached out to Kay Kinoshota, head of the physics department, upon learning of the incident. Kinoshota looked into the incident and determined that there had been a chain of miscommunication, he said. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct the name of the head of the physics department.)

“I think the faculty member was trying to convey that if a female student wanted to be in a group with another female student, we should accommodate that,” Petren said. “We don’t have an official policy on that, but I think it’s a good practice.”

“There was an isolated teaching assistant who misinterpreted instructions from the faculty member about how to form groups,” Petren added. “Then the student misinterpreted that and thought it would segregate the whole class.”

But Chris Finney, Helmicki's lawyer, said the segregation persisted and was sanctioned by Bortner as policy. “What’s surprising about this case is not that some TA went off the rails and did something inappropriate,” Finney said. “That’s going to happen at any large institution. What’s shocking about this case is that … they ratified this bad conduct at the highest levels and refused to do anything about it.”

Shaffer and Bortner seemed to believe the policy was legal because students could opt out, Finney said. But Title IX does not make an exception for voluntary single-sex activities at universities.

“Title IX prohibits any sex-based discrimination,” Finney said. “There are exceptions at the elementary and secondary level, but none of those exceptions apply at the university level. There’s not a shred of an exception that you could hang your hat on to defend this.”

Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies at the Western New England University School of Law, echoed these concerns about the policy's legality. “When I read about this, I thought, ‘Is there any possible way that this is legal under Title IX?’ And I couldn’t think of any,” she said.

“Whether it’s a policy on paper or a policy that exists in practice, it’s still something that can be challenged,” Buzuvis added. “When you’re talking about a policy like this that seems to exist in practice, it becomes a little harder to prove that it’s happening. That’s where the emails come into play as evidence.”

Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, counsel for education at the National Women's Law Center, said the policy flies in the face of not only Title IX, but also the 1996 Supreme Court case United States v. Virginia, which struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s policy of admitting only men. Since the landmark case, “it’s been understood especially in the university setting that sex segregation is unconstitutional,” she said.

“I didn’t even know this was still happening in a university context,” Onyeka-Crawford said. “I’m hopeful that this policy isn’t in place at other universities, especially in a physics lab, when we know that women are underrepresented in STEM fields.”

Bortner declined to comment for this article.

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