Big Green sports move towards gender equity

by Sammy Kardon | 10/23/02 5:00am

When Judy Oberting '91 arrived in Hanover in the fall of 1987 to play ice hockey and lacrosse for the Big Green, things were a little different for female athletes than they are today.

"All our equipment, except for skates and sticks, were hand-me-downs from the men's team. We were wearing their old pants and helmets," she remembered. "But there was a feeling that things would keep getting better, and they have."

She's right. Over the past few years, the women's hockey team has gotten new equipment (all its own) and a new locker room and Oberting, now in her fourth season as the head coach of Dartmouth's nationally-respected women's hockey team, is just getting used to her brand new corner office.

Although it took hard work and many years to get to this point, Dartmouth's athletic department is a model for successful compliance with the controversial Title IX legislation that requires gender equity in all aspects of federally funded educational institutions, including athletics.

Much of the impetus for the changes at Dartmouth came as a result of the Clinton administration's heightened focus on enforcing Title IX and the spate of lawsuits against other schools. And there were also strong complaints from students .

"There were students petitioning for more women's varsity teams," said women's studies Professor Mary Turco, who was associate dean at the College in the mid-'90s and is currently teaching a course on gender and sports. "There were people saying 'this is the right thing to do, and we need to find a way to do it.'"

Around that time, softball and volleyball were elevated from club to varsity status and the College finally had 16 women's varsity sports to go along with 16 men's and two co-ed ones.

While the standing and funding of women's teams at Dartmouth has reflected the changing national emphasis on parity in sports, there has also been a consistent emphasis within the administration on gender equity as a goal for the future, even if it has taken 30 years to realize it.

When Dartmouth first went co-educational in 1972, the same year the initial Title IX legislation was passed, it had only five women's teams. Title IX was not applied to athletics until 1979, and many of Dartmouth's fledgling women's programs spent the '70s under-funded or chafing against the constraints of club status.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Education essentially required collegesto have the same percentage of females participating in athletics as in the undergraduate student body.

Dartmouth had been working towards that goal before 1996, however, and according to federally-filed reports over the past four years, an average of 48 percent of its athletes are female, within the one percent differential of the 48.4 percent of female students required for full compliance with Title IX.

Unlike the many schools that have struggled mightily with Title IX, Dartmouth has avoided having to slash popular men's programs. Besides bumping men's volleyball down to club status, Dartmouth has largely worked towards equity by adding to women's teams rather than subtracting from men's.

"We watch it closely to make sure that the experiences are of like quality," Josie Harper, Dartmouth's new athletic director, said. "It's not something that we reached out in left field and pulled in. It's always been a part of the plan."

Dartmouth complies with the spirit of Title IX beyond what the letter of the law requires, particular in the area of finances.

Over the past four years, the percentage of the athletics department's total operating expenses allocated to men has declined from 57.9 in 1998-99 to 53.8 last year. Dartmouth spent only $112 more per capita for each male athlete, far better the $803 spread the Women's Sports Foundation pegs as the Division I average.

Dartmouth is also on the forefront of gender equity in terms of athletics administration. Harper is one of the few female athletic directors in Division I, a member of an 8.4 percent minority. Dartmouth also has a far greater percentage of women coaching women's teams than most schools in America.

None of this is required by Title IX, and neither is the policy of umbrella fundraising the college has in place for all of its sports with different teams for each gender, like hockey and basketball. All direct solicitations of funds to alumni are under the auspices of a gender neutral organization, like the Friends of Dartmouth Hockey. Whatever money comes in is split evenly between the men's and women's teams in the particular sport, which is particularly helpful to the women's teams since they do not have as many alumni on which to draw for support.

Dartmouth male and female athletes alike said they felt Dartmouth has achieved gender equity in sports.

If there is any disparity between the genders, it is the higher national profile of the women's teams.

"Pretty much every major woman's sport competes at a high level on a national scene," men's basketball captain Greg Friel '03 said. "The men's teams haven't been as good as the women's programs in my tenure at the school."

Harper, who coached the women's lacrosse team for years before working her way up through the athletic department's administrative side, sees a bigger comparative advantage for Dartmouth teams recruiting women over those recruiting men.

"There still is a bit more focus on academics and things that you're going to do later in life for women than there is for men," Harper explained.

This phenomenon often leads women athletes to choose schools like Dartmouth based on academics first, but, according to Harper, this is changing as women's athletics feels the cumulative effects of the last 30 years of Title IX more and more each year.

Whereas Dartmouth used to be one of the few schools offering certain athletic opportunities for prospective athletes, the increased participation in women's sports at all levels has lead to an ongoing proliferation of teams. Every year, women's collegiate athletics resembles men's more and more in every aspect, not just recruiting.

While there is currently a heated debate about Title IX compliance on the national level, so much so that there is currently a 15-person committee reevaluating how it has been designed and enforced, such controversy does not exist at Dartmouth.

"It's heartening to find that Dartmouth is an example of how Title IX can be successful when a university has the right priorities," Donna Devora, a two-time gold medal winning swimmer and member of the committee, said.