CHANCES ARE, IF YOU'VE heard of Title IX, it is in the context of collegiate athletics, where the law is best known today for strict gender quotas that destroy men's sports like wrestling, under the guise of expanding opportunity for women. But Title IX is in fact a sweeping law that applies to virtually every aspect of education. And since the law was enacted in the early seventies, feminist groups have been pushing for greater enforcement--including gender quotas--beyond athletics, especially in the target-rich, male-dominated fields of math and science.

A couple weeks ago they got their wish--for a few days at least.

On March 25, National Journal reported that the Bush administration planned an unprecedented expansion of Title IX enforcement into the math and science departments of the nation's leading research universities. In interviews with several publications, Assistant Secretary of Education Stephanie Monroe announced that the Department of Education would be teaming up with the National Science Foundation to investigate the sex disparities in hard sciences--particularly engineering, physics, and computer science--that got former Harvard University president Larry Summers into so much trouble when he broached the subject in an academic meeting last year.

Monroe said that, beginning this summer, Education's Office of Civil Rights--which she heads--would conduct intensive investigations of colleges and universities to determine if they are complying with Title IX in their treatment of women as undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Unlike investigations that arise as the result of a specific allegation of discrimination, these investigations, called compliance reviews, are initiated by the government, often take months, and usually result in a new policy that all colleges and universities must follow. In the past eleven years, only three Title IX compliance reviews in math and science have been conducted by the Education Department. This summer, Monroe said, she planned to do six.

Monroe's comments were noticed by a few conservative blogs and ignited a muted but intense uproar among conservative women's groups and education specialists. The issue wasn't just that Monroe was taking Title IX into virtually uncharted territory, it was the specific criteria for enforcement of the law that she cited.

She told Inside Higher Education, for example, that because the discrimination faced by women in math and science is often "subtle," the government would investigate policies that result in women "feeling unwelcome" in their pursuit of advanced degrees or tenured positions in the hard sciences. Although Monroe promised to "not simply look at the numbers," the unwelcoming environments for women she intended to investigate were in fact schools where a relatively small number of women pursue postgraduate work or where relatively few women are hired as faculty in math and science.

This was not the first time that Monroe, who was confirmed by the Senate last December, had shown a propensity for expansive interpretation of Title IX. In February, she earned praise from groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation for her first act in office: putting school districts on notice that the Bush Department of Education will enforce Clinton-era rules on sexual harassment in schools--including grade schools. These rules made schools responsible for harassment of students by other students--a sweeping expansion of liability for schools, which now have to worry about "inappropriate sexual behavior" between six year olds.

But the expansion of Title IX into federal oversight of math and science programs would have bested even the most aggressive enforcement schemes of Monroe's Clinton-era predecessor, Norma Cantu, who was dubbed, along with Lani Guinier, one of Clinton's "Quota Queens."

So on March 29--four days after Monroe's announcement appeared in National Journal--the White House quietly forced a retraction. On Department of Education letterhead, a statement was released over Monroe's signature promising that "the Department of Education is not expanding Title IX enforcement beyond its regular activities to combat unlawful discrimination. Further, the Department is not implementing any quota system or new enforcement program to advance study opportunities in math and science." And then Monroe promptly went on "travel," according to an Education Department spokesman, and has since been unavailable for interviews.

Monroe's aborted attempt to take Title IX where it has never gone before is part of the decidedly mixed record of the Bush administration in eliminating gender quotas under the law. In 2002, the White House created a commission to study Title IX enforcement, which recommended a series of small measures to soften the impact of Title IX quotas in athletics. When even these minor changes--which were approved by a commission hand-picked by the Bush administration--were rejected after an outcry by liberal women's groups, the cave-in was widely credited to the influence of White House Special Assistant for Domestic Policy Margaret Spellings, whom Bush subsequently promoted to secretary of education.

Under Spellings, however, the department has shown some willingness to challenge Title IX quotas. Last year, the Education Department issued guidance making it easier for colleges and universities to show compliance with the law without resorting to quotas. The change would allow schools to use email surveys of students to gauge interest in sports and have the results, instead of a quota, determine which men's and women's teams they would sponsor.

But even this common sense approach has been portrayed by feminists as undermining women's rights under Title IX. Soon after the new guidance was issued, two proponents of Title IX quotas, Donna Lopiano and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, wrote that surveys can't gauge men's and women's relative interest in sports because "culturally, men are simply more likely than women to profess an interest in sport." Women, on the other hand, "are less likely to profess an interest in sports, even if they are interested!"

It is this kind of Stalinist message-discipline on the part of Title IX quota advocates ("Women want to play sports just as much as men, they just won't admit it!") that makes Monroe's misadventure a leading indicator of what's to come with Title IX. Feminists have pursued a consistent strategy of conflating women's progress and Title IX: of treating any retreat from rigid gender quotas as an attack on women and attributing all women's accomplishments to the aggressive enforcement of the law. If a political appointee in a Republican administration will attempt to curry favor with these groups and their media allies by expanding the use of quotas, what should we expect from a Democratic administration?

In fact, it was under the previous Democratic administration that sex quotas became the reigning method of enforcing Title IX compliance in athletics. Clinton administration officials like Cantu worked closely with liberal women's groups to advance a legal and regulatory strategy that transformed Title IX from an equal opportunity law to an equal outcomes law, regardless of differences in interest between men and women athletes. The result was that in the 1990s, for every woman who gained an opportunity to play organized collegiate sports, 3.4 men had the opportunity taken away from them.

And at the same time that quotas were gaining a foothold in athletics, feminists were pushing for their expansion into other areas of education. In fact, some women's groups have argued that the success of Title IX quotas in athletics has overshadowed what they believe to be the law's mandate to provide equal outcomes in other areas of education. Not just math and science programs, but areas like sexual harassment and standardized testing are tempting targets for advocates of gender-quota logic. This logic, so well entrenched in collegiate athletics today, begins with the presumption that men and women and girls and boys are identical in their interests and abilities. And if interests are equal, then "gender equity" demands that actual participation must be equal. Anything less is proof that someone is being discriminated against.

And once accepted, why must this logic end at the playing field's edge? The answer is, it won't. When Stephanie Monroe's successor announces plans to use gender quotas to determine which colleges and universities get federal research funding in math and science, some future White House won't slap her on the wrist; it'll pat her on the back.

Jessica Gavora is the author of Tilting the Playing Field: Schools, Sports, Sex and Title IX.

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