Originally published by The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, IA

As the school year winds to a close, students and professors alike are ready for summer vacation, long days at the pool, and a break from academics.  Unfortunately, when many students return to school in the fall, the campus landscape will be radically different.Twenty-six years ago this May, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

The past two months have seen unprecedented cuts to athletic programs across the country:  a staggering eight sports at MIT, men’s swimming and soccer at Kutztown, men’s soccer at Maine, baseball at Northern Iowa, just to name a few.  In most circumstances the schools justified their decisions as necessary cost cutting measures in a slumping economy.  But it’s also important to understand the role that Title IX plays in all athletic programming decisions, including the decision to eliminate many of these teams.

Title IX is the law that bars sex discrimination in educational programs.  This means that when schools contemplate their athletic programs compliance with Title IX is paramount.   For years the standard procedure for program cuts has been as follows:  1) a school announces cuts due to budgetary concerns, 2) concerned alumni step forward and offer to fundraise to save the program, 3) the school says “thanks, but no thanks,” because of concerns with Title IX compliance.  There is less political blowback if schools focus on costs, lest they be accused of “blaming their problems on Title IX” by the gender equity lobby.  Too often, Title IX is the elephant in the room that schools simply don’t want to talk about, which is a shame for the athletic community who deserve straightforward information from the schools they proudly represent on the field.

True, cutting teams saves money.  And in a struggling economy, schools, like any other institution, would be wise to look at cost-cutting measures across all of their programs.  But today the sports that are most likely to be cut are also small budget teams – think wrestling, tennis, and soccer.  Kutztown University’s recent cuts, for example, are estimated to save the school up to $150,000 annually.  That number might sound large to an individual, but it is pocket change for a university.  It’s hard to imagine that the school wouldn’t have been able to make smaller budget cuts more broadly across the athletic department and save at least as much money.  So why would a school choose to cut entire programs?  That’s where Title IX comes into play.

The crux of Title IX enforcement comes through its proportionality requirement.  To be considered proportional, the gender balance of athletes must match the gender balance of the overall student body.  So, if 58% of students are female, 58% of athletes must also be female.  It should be no surprise that schools have a hard time meeting that requirement.  Greater interest in athletics by men combined with skyrocketing female enrollment figures leaves most schools between a rock and a hard place.

So what is a school to do?  They can add more women’s teams or cut men’s teams to make the numbers add up.  Most often schools take the latter route.  In tough economic times, schools get an added bonus of cost savings (even if minimal, as at Kutztown) while taking one step closer to the legal safe harbor of proportionality.  That’s why many schools eliminate programs for one sex-men’s soccer and swimming in the case of Kutztown-while preserving them for the other.  If costs were the only consideration, there would be no reason for universities to disproportionately cut men’s team.  But while eliminating men’s teams ends up being a two-for-one punch for schools, it leaves large numbers of male athletes as innocent victims.  Ironic for a law that was meant to prevent sex discrimination, no?

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, announcing cuts at the end of a school year presents another problem for the student athletes involved:  it doesn’t give them enough time to transfer to another school if they want to continue competing at the collegiate level.  Announcing a cut towards the end of the school year might save the school from negative publicity (even if students are outraged, that is likely to dissipate over summer break), but it does a disservice to the students involved, who at least deserve the chance to look elsewhere so they can continue their athletic career.

Fortunately, most student athletes don’t give up without a fight.  The athletic community at Kutztown, for example, has been busy with meetings, rallies, and media outreach to attempt to save their teams.  In a sign of solidarity with their male teammates, female athletes are leading the charge.  But even if they are successful in reviving their sports, which does happen now and again, the victory will be local, while the specter of Title IX compliance looms over every school in the nation.  Unless reforms happen on a national level, the spring pastime of cutting teams is bound to continue.

Allison Kasic is a senior policy analyst and the director of the R. Gaull Silberman Center for Collegiate Studies at the Independent Women’s Forum.