Talk: ‘Why Has Title IX Become So Controversial?’

  • R. Shep Melnick, a political science professor at Boston College, will give a talk at Dartmouth College about the changing interpretations of Title IX on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 08, 2018

When many people think of Title IX, they think of school athletics — and for good reason. Its purpose, when Congress passed it as part of the Educational Amendments of 1972, was to give women and girls equal access to sports programs and other federally funded school activities.

But R. Shep Melnick, a professor of American politics at Boston College, wants to change the way people think about the landmark civil rights law. After all, this is 2018, and Title IX’s role in the American legal landscape has transformed and expanded over the years to address many more types of discrimination. But not everyone would argue that these expansions, which Melnick believes are the result of a flawed legislative process, are for the best.

He will trace the evolving role of Title IX in a talk at Dartmouth College tonight, titled “Why Has Title IX Become So Controversial?”

Melnick, who grew up in Littleton, N.H. and now lives in Amherst, N.H., recently came out with a book on this topic, The Transformation of Title IX: Regulating Gender Equality in Education. He didn’t mean to, though — it just sort of happened.

“I was initially researching for a book looking at how we make civil rights policy,” he recalled in a phone conversation last week. “One chapter, the chapter on Title IX, kept growing and growing until it was a whole book, much to my surprise.”

Timing was a big part of why the Title IX chapter blew up into a 322-page text. “The extent of the changes to Title IX regulations, and the extent to which it hit hot-button issues, really expanded as I tried to write,” he said. “It seemed like I was trying to capture a moving target.”

First, the Obama administration came out with a string of “very ambitious, aggressive” mandates on sexual harassment and transgender rights, under the auspices of Title IX.

“It was a huge controversy,” Melnick said, and one that developed at a pace that made it hard for his Title IX chapter to stay relevant. These mandates came through “a number of unilateral ‘Dear Colleague’ letters, which was ironic because most university faculty members don’t consider (the federal government) our colleagues,” Melnick said. But what he found more disturbing was that these letters did not invite public discussion, instead taking on a tone of “Dear Colleagues, here’s what we’re doing and if you have any comments feel free to let us know,” he said.

These procedures were not only unusual, but also reflected what Melnick saw as a reinterpretation of Title IX by the Office of Civil Rights.

“(Title IX) was originally intended to strike down the many very real institutional barriers that prevented women from getting equal education … and in the time that Title IX has been on the books, opportunities for women have increased dramatically,” with women making up the majority of college students in the United States.

“Now, the purpose is undoing all kinds of stereotypes about gender and sexuality, including stereotypes that exist among the general public,” rather than in school settings. “The original focus was on the classroom, then it moved to the playing field, then to bedrooms and bathrooms — quite far afield from the original focus on educational opportunity.”

He added that one major flaw with the processes behind the new Title IX regulations is that they are arbitrary, and therefore easily reversed. When the Trump administration came into power, it withdrew the letters on transgender rights and sexual harassment, bringing protections back to those established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“It’s all in a state of legal flux now,” Melnick said. “I hope, quite frankly, that one immediate impact (of these conversations) will be for both sides of the debate — those defending the Obama administration and those attacking the Obama administration — to see possible middle ground.

“We don’t have to do away with the regulations, but we can do a lot to improve them.”

Boston College professor R. Shep Melnick will speak tonight on the topic of “Why Has Title IX Become So Controversial?” from 5 to 6:15 at Dartmouth College, in Room 003 of the Rockefeller Center.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.