The legacy and lessons of Dr. Bernice Sandler, the godmother of Title IX

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Dr. Bernice Sandler was an integral part of the creation and passage of Title IX legislation addressing discrimination against women in education and collegiate athletics.

Dr. Bernice Sandler, the godmother of Title IX, was a tireless foe of sex discrimination who irrevocably altered America's colleges, college sports and opportunities for women for the better. Today, it is hard to imagine how pervasive sex discrimination was on college campuses in 1972, when Title IX was enacted.

As Dr. Sandler described in her own history of Title IX, at the University of Michigan, the women's varsity athletics program had a budget of zero dollars; women athletes sold apples at Michigan football games to pay for their own travel and expenses.

Title IX proved to have an enormous positive impact on American society in unexpected ways, not just on the lives of women and girls. Dr. Sandler, who died earlier this month, launched a fight for justice that holds many lessons for grappling with the challenges facing college sports today. Title IX makes no reference to "sports" or "athletics," and no one foresaw in 1972 the profound impact Title IX would have, both in college classrooms and on the playing field and court.

The enabling clause of Title IX was just 31 words long and stated a deceptively simple principle: "No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program receiving Federal financial assistance."

Yet few pieces of law have done more to reduce discrimination and open economic opportunities for women and girls. A 2010 study by University of Michigan professor Betsey Stevenson found that up to 40 percent of the long-term overall rise in employment among women in the United States in the 25-to-34-year-old age group was attributable to Title IX.

Within a few years of Title IX's passage, athletic directors and college presidents belatedly awoke to the realization that the law required equitable treatment in college sports programs. The male-run athletic establishment warned that Title IX would have an apocalyptic impact on football, basketball, wrestling and other male-dominated sports. But the Chicken Little-skeptics proved to be wrong. Title IX did not become a zero-sum proposition, and new opportunities for women didn't mean fewer opportunities for men.

The godmother of Title IX stumbled into her role as a champion of gender equality almost accidentally when she had her own encounter with the sexual discrimination that then prevailed in higher education. In 1969, Dr. Sandler, a part-time instructor with a freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, asked a male faculty member why she was not considered for any of the seven faculty openings in her department. "Let's face it," he replied. "You come on too strong for a woman."

Those eight words -- "you come on too strong for a woman" -- altered the course of Dr. Sandler's life and the future of higher education. She went on to devote her career to the fight for gender equity in the classroom, not only by researching, crafting and advocating for Title IX but by leading the fight against discrimination and sexual harassment as director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women at the Association of American Colleges (from 1971 to 1990).

There is a lot to learn from Dr. Sandler's story and fierce advocacy. She fought for justice by insisting that colleges live up to first principles of equity as educators, despite claims that monied sports programs and old-boy network college traditions would never change. Her example reminds us at the Knight Commission to continue putting principle first in the reform of intercollegiate athletics, to aim for ambitious change and to reject the easy, conventional skepticism about the supposedly intractable problems of big-revenue college sports.

Thank you, Dr. Bernice Sandler, for your leadership and your legacy.

Arne Duncan and Carol Cartwright are co-chairs of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

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