Penn State and Title IX: A Legacy of Leadership (Print)

By Chris Buchignani, September 2014

When Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 became law, prohibiting gender discrimination within “any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” university athletic departments across the country suddenly faced important decisions. The defining choices made at Penn State form one of the school’s great, yet largely unappreciated, success stories.

Some 40 years earlier, State’s librarian and first historian, Erwin Runkle, noted that though “always in the general stream of college life, Penn State has nevertheless had a ‘way of her own.’” Amidst national confusion and backlash in the wake of Title IX’s passage, PSU held true to his words.

In the minds of many sports fans, “Title IX” conjures vague notions of a law designed to promote women’s sports that also forced a bunch of schools to close down their wrestling programs. Closer examination reveals a much more complex web of good intentions, misguided interpretations, and a lot of political maneuvering in the ample space between them. Just one aspect of a broader educational reform package characterizing the equality movement of the time, Title IX, which makes no explicit mention of athletics, aimed to codify the expectation of equal access for women in education. The extent to which compliance eventually resulted in reduced opportunities for male athletes at many institutions speaks more to their own priorities, and lack of foresight perhaps, than the merits of the law itself.

When it became clear the new law would have massive implications for the burgeoning big business of college sports, the nation’s universities had arrived at a crossroads: Adapt, or resist; embrace the spirit, or do legal battle over the letter, of the law. For its part, the NCAA chose the latter, filing a 1976 court challenge on behalf of its member institutions, many of which chose to slow walk the implementation process while the case played out. Although this suit was dismissed, it marked the first of several, mostly fruitless, legal and legislative fights over Title IX’s enforcement. When neither Congress nor the courts delivered lasting relief, those schools that had long resisted the tides of change were all but forced to eliminate men’s sports as a matter of last resort. Penn State did things differently.

By the late 1960’s, the leaders at many colleges realized that the long-recognized potential of big-time sports to energize alumni donors and promote a brand image could be supercharged through mass media, compounding their substantial marketing value several times over. This sparked a steady migration of responsibility for athletics oversight within collegiate administration, away from academic deans and toward business-minded athletic departments. The trend came late to Happy Valley, and in 1972, athletics fell under the supervision of Bob Scannell, dean of the College of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, hearkening back to a time when intercollegiate student competition, though far from immune to excess, was viewed as complementary to the educational mission of a university. This increasingly antiquated academic approach may help explain the University’s openness to offering opportunities for female athletes.

The accommodating attitude bore immediate fruit. Over the course of the decade, national media, including Sports Illustrated and ABC, would hold up Penn State as the face of a new era in women’s sports. TIME’s June 26, 1978 issue, which examined the impact of Title IX, featured a cover image of Lions lacrosse player Karen Pesto and quoted PSU’s Dr. Dorothy Harris, a pioneer in women’s sport psychology. Penn State produced three field hockey players who were selected for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams, among them Char Morett, who would go on to a decorated coaching career at PSU and enshrinement in the U.S. Field Hockey Hall of Fame. Barbara Doran, another varsity athlete and Title IX activist of the era, played on both the U.S. field hockey and lacrosse teams and would be elected to the University’s Board of Trustees in 2013.

None of this should suggest that the path forward was always smooth. In today’s climate, where coach of the Big Ten champion Lady Lions Coquese Washington appears alongside other pillars of the community on the Hiester Street Inspiration Mural, and where we honor Russ Rose’s six national titles in women’s volleyball alongside Joe Paterno’s legendary career in football at the Berkey Creamery, it becomes easy to forget that, even here at Penn State, the struggle for equality in women’s athletics was often exactly that.

“We Are a Strong, Articulate Voice: A History of Women at Penn State,” by Carol Sonenklar, records the tireless efforts required of field hockey and lacrosse coach Gillian Rattray and Sports Information director Mary Jo Haverbeck to achieve such elementary concessions as uniform logos and numbers. Their persistence, joined with the visionary leadership of many other women like Marty Adams, Della Durant, and Sue Scheetz, tells an uplifting tale. When faced with obstacles at critical junctures, Penn Staters consistently found the wisdom and initiative to surmount them.

That we today celebrate Penn State’s 14 women’s varsity sports reflects an inclusionary posture that is evident throughout the University’s history. Indeed, the first president, Evan Pugh, founded the school on what, at the time, was the audacious notion that serious study of agriculture and the mechanical arts belonged on equal footing with literature and the arts within the academy. In 1871, six years after Pugh’s untimely death, Penn State became the first institution of higher education in Pennsylvania to admit female students. A century later, the humble beginnings of The Farmers’ High School had yielded a thriving university where Pugh’s successors welcomed the promise of Title IX. Consciously or no, they inherited a legacy of the egalitarian impulse that animated the land-grant movement, and to their lasting credit, they rose to the occasion of upholding its values and expanding its scope.

If we are to embrace the notion of the Nittany Valley as a place apart, these connections are integral to that understanding. If there is, in fact, a certain spirit or magic to the place, it may be in its enduring capacity for attracting a special brand of people, its power to captivate the hearts and imaginations of those who will enrich and sustain it.

To discern a thread connecting 19th century educational pioneers like Pugh with the likes of Durant, Scannell, Scheetz and Haverbeck – understanding them as interrelated characters in one still-unfolding narrative – is to appreciate the slow, but steady taking root of a distinct “Penn State Way.” It has been discovered and proudly carried forward, and often reinvented along the way, by one generation after another. At a time of profound cultural change, one such group helped make Penn State a national standard bearer for an emerging social consciousness.

This history should spark pride in any heart that loves the name of Dear Old State. The story, however, continues.

Even as we now laud the landmark hiring of the institution’s first female athletic director, new challenges loom just over the horizon. Several high-profile court cases and greater autonomy for the so-called “Power Five” conferences could dramatically reshape the funding model of college sports. Such changes could very well align with the fast-approaching time when a prohibition against reduced support for PSU’s existing sports, part of the NCAA consent decree, will expire.

Penn State will inevitably face another moment for choosing. Remembering its story and reflecting on a proud tradition of making the choices that elevate opportunity and reinforce the very best of the student-athlete ideal can help us find the resolve to carry forward and renew a legacy of leadership.

Special thanks to Dr. Scott Kretchmar and Dr. Mark Dyreson for their time and input.