Graphic by Nate Barton
In the past year, college campuses across the nation faced a period of unrest and transformation. Students protested and fought for equal rights in racially diverse and LGBTQ+ communities. Sit-ins, protests and rallies led to a presidential resignation at the University of Missouri, a newly established LGBTQ+ club at Pepperdine University and heated discussions about ongoing sexual assault on college campuses.
Conversations about race on traditionally White campuses, such as Yale, Princeton and UVA, led to heightened awareness about continued discrimination, according to an article by Nick Anderson and Susan Svrluga titled, “2015: A year of tumult on college campuses,” published by the Washington Post on Dec. 25, 2015, describing the tumultuous college events of 2015. Discussions about gun control surfaced alongside major lockdowns at six different universities, according to the article.
Protests about racial inequality at Pepperdine led to the removal of a culturally insensitive wooden mural in the cafeteria as well as continued protests this semester about the Christopher Columbus statue on campus. This year, these discussions continue on many campuses, including Pepperdine’s, with the recent removal of its Title IX exemption. Although Title IX has become a frequently referenced piece of legislation, it continues to be misunderstood.
Facts of Title IX
The Title IX amendment essentially serves to protect citizens from sex discrimination of any kind. The original purpose of the Title IX amendment, which was signed into law by former President Richard Nixon more than 40 years ago, was “to avoid the use of federal money to support sex discrimination in education programs and to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices,” according to the Department of Justice’s website.
“Title IX also requires schools to take steps to prevent and remedy sex-based harassment, including harassment based on a student’s gender identity or gender nonconformity,” Sally Dunaway, a staff attorney for the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, wrote in an email. “When a school knows or reasonably should know of possible harassment, it must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.”
Some schools find the Title IX legislation inconsistent with religious ideology and have applied for exemptions from the legislation. “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization,” according to the U.S. Department of Education website.
Exemptions are submitted by the highest ranking official at the educational institution and specify which elements of Title IX are found inconsistent with the religious organization. These exemptions have caused an uproar from LGBTQ+ advocacy groups as they essentially allow for discrimination against these students.
Sixteen schools in California have active religious exemptions, including Fresno Pacific University, John Paul the Great Catholic University and Simpson University, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s chart of active exemptions. Additional Church of Christ schools with active exemptions are Crowley’s Ridge College, Freed Hardeman University, Harding University, Ohio Valley University, Oklahoma Christian University and York College, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Universities with pending exemptions include Biola University, the Latin American Bible Institute in La Puente, Westminster Seminary California and William Jessup University.
An entire list of all schools nationwide that have applied for and received responses for Title IX exemptions can be found in the Religious Exemption Index from the U.S. Department of Education.
Title IX at Pepperdine
Pepperdine University applied for a Title IX exemption in 1976, which was subsequently granted in 1985. The original request for exemption was submitted by former President of Pepperdine William Banowsky and stated the elements of Title IX that were inconsistent with tenets of the Church of Christ.
“There are two principal religious tenets which are inconsistent with the Title IX Regulations,” Banowsky wrote. “The first such tenet is the belief that women should not serve in positions of authority or leadership over men in public worship, religious instruction, or in the home. The second such tenet is the belief that God approves sexual relationships only between male and female in holy wedlock.”
The request included other specific sections that the University was seeking exemption from. Some of these exemptions included disciplinary action toward persons involved in heterosexual sexual relationships outside of marriage and also toward homosexual relationships. It also requested the right to exclude women from all programs designated for students preparing for the preaching ministry, including loans, scholarships, awards, employment assistance and also “the leading of devotionals in mixed audiences in daily chapel, the annual lectureship, or similar programs.”
Pepperdine University held its exemption until Jan. 27, although it was never utilized in any situations, according to President Andrew K. Benton’s letter. With the intention of revoking Pepperdine’s exemption to Title IX discrimination regulations, specifically regarding female and homosexual students, President Benton sent a withdrawal letter to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which read:
“Please accept this letter as Pepperdine University’s withdrawal of its 1976 request for an exemption from certain provisions of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The 1976 exemption request was granted by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Since that time, the University has not asserted its exemption. While the University continues to be controlled through its affiliation with the Churches of Christ, within the meaning contemplated by Title IX, the University is committed to complying with Title IX.”
Benton asserted his decision was less reflective of a shift in culture at Pepperdine and more a sign of the times.
“There are those who think that this is signaling a dramatic change in Pepperdine and that we are walking away somehow from our faith roots,” Benton said. “It’s just not true. It’s just in 2016, it’s just not relevant to Pepperdine today.”
Benton said he was not aware of the exemption until recently, but added that he understood Banoswky’s acquisition of it more than 30 years ago.
“This was a tumultuous time when a lot of institutions, and perhaps especially faith-based institutions, were concerned about whether or not they could be who they were established to be,” he said. “I have actually heard from Dr. Banowsky, who supports the decision we’ve made in 2016. I didn’t know how he’d feel about it, but he acknowledged the change in times.”
Edna Powell, chief business officer and former Title IX Coordinator, said she supported Benton’s decision but also anticipated at least some resistance from outside the university.
“I think there are always going to be some who oppose [the withdrawal] and feel that you are going the way of the culture, or something like that,” Powell said. “But I feel, that for the majority, and when it comes to the Christian faith, it comes down to love and acceptance … It’s not some rule that we just write down; we’re talking about people.”
Pepperdine hired a new Title IX coordinator for students, La Shonda Coleman, as of Sept. 18. Coleman’s responsibilities include responding to any issues regarding sexual violence, intimate partner violence, as well as sexual discrimination based on gender identity, in addition to her role overseeing Pepperdine’s compliance with Title IX. Coleman has extensive experience with sexual assault, as she worked at the Santa Monica-UCLA Rape Treatment center and said she takes her responsibility at Pepperdine very seriously.
“It’s a shared responsibility to ensure that the campus is safe, and it’s all of our responsibility to know that if any member of the community is harmed through gender-based violence, or sex-based discrimination, that we know that they have the right to receive services, to receive support and to prevent that from occurring,” Coleman said.
Cameron Hart, senior and president of Crossroads, Pepperdine’s first LGBTQ+ club, reacted to the exemption by asserting that Benton’s withdrawal of the exemption was nothing more significant than removing an outdated label.
“There’s a certain point where the wellbeing of students outweighs antiquated institutional provisions, and this was exactly the case with President Benton’s decision,” Hart wrote in an email. “The Pepperdine community may say that this marks a significant shift in the University’s commitment to its religious tenets, but I can see no noticeable difference in the treatment of students prior to and after the exemption removal.”
Pepperdine has had a rocky past with LGBTQ+ relations for initially denying an LGBTQ+ club, as well an ongoing lawsuit from two lesbian basketball players against their coach. Although LGBTQ+ relations still have a long way to go, there has been some improvement, Hart wrote.
“In the three years I’ve spent as an undergrad, things have improved; however, current LGBTQ+ relations are not ideal and they never will be,” he wrote. “But I think the ultimate goal is to establish a livable community where LGBTQ+ students are not just tolerated, but they are welcomed, respected, and given opportunities to engage in thoughtful conversation with their peers.”
The Future of Title IX
Across the nation, discussion concerning Title IX exemptions has raised a number of questions regarding necessary disclosure of such exemptions to potential and current members of the school community. As a result of this idea, a new bill made its way through the California State Senate and was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.
The bill, SB 1146, mandates full disclosure of any Title IX exemptions in any postsecondary educational institution in the state of California. As of the 2017-18 school year, all institutions with Title IX exemptions must disclose their exemptions to “current and prospective students, faculty members, and employees the basis for claiming or having the exemption and the scope of the allowable activities provided by the exemption,” according to the bill.
Proper disclosure includes awareness of the institutions’ stance included in materials sent to prospective students, disclosure in prominent locations on campus or the school site, along with full disclosure in any publication set forth by the institution discussing rules and procedures of the institution.
An additional change to the regulation surrounding Title IX was a “Dear Colleague” letter, sent from the Obama Administration. The letter summarizes and explains how to appropriately deal with Title IX regulations concerning transgender students. The letter offered “significant guidance,” as opposed to additional legal requirements, and asserted that the Title IX amendment should be read in such a way that it includes prohibition of discrimination “based on a student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status.”
The letter also stated, “The Departments [the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice] treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex for purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations. This means that a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.”
As the culture of the United States continues to change, so will its legislation. Title IX is a dynamic regulation that continues to affect college campuses across the nation as it grows and changes alongside the students that it serves. Pepperdine and other communities are continuing to further the conversation surrounding equality and LGTBQ+ relations, as well as making relevant changes on campus. With a new Title IX coordinator, the on-going Title IX lawsuit and continued protests on campus, Pepperdine’ s relationship with its legislation continues to grow and change.
Alec McPike and Cassandra Stephenson contributed to the reporting of this article.
Follow Rachel Littauer on Twitter: @rachelitt23