Women's rights on campus

Symbolically it may be an important ruling. Practically, it may have little effect in day-to-day activities. That is much of the response to the decision by the US Supreme Court that interprets more narrowly than in the past a 12-year-old federal law known as Title IX. It bans discrimination against women in colleges that are given federal funds.

In taking its stand the court agreed with the Reagan administration. Formerly the federal government could threaten to withdraw all federal money from a college that discriminated against its female students in any way. It was that threat which resulted in substantially more money being spent on many campuses for women's athletics, so that female athletes would not be discriminated against by comparison with their male counterparts. For a college that receives federal funds, from now on apparently only the part of a college's program judged to discriminate would be threatened with loss of federal money.

As a result, the decision throws more responsibility on individual colleges to see that any valid complaints of discrimination against women are properly dealt with.

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Theoretically, Congress could enact legislation saying that the law should be broadly interpreted. Such a proposal is expected to be introduced. Last fall the House passed a similar resolution, and it may approve such a bill. But the proposal could run into problems in the Senate. Even if it were approved by Congress it might not gain presidential signature, in view of the Reagan administration's opposition to the concept.

To some women the symbolism of the ruling is important. Some female students hold that in little ways male students still unfairly have more leverage than females on many campuses, with the result that it is reassuring to have broad federal protection in case of need. In addition, activists are concerned that withdrawal of the broader interpretation could result in more discrimination against women on campus.

However, that seems unlikely. Times have dramatically changed in the dozen years that Title IX has been in effect. There is considerably greater public acceptance now of the concept of equality of women in all phases of society, including roles as college students and athletes. Women themselves are much more aware of and vocal about their unlimited potentialities and their right to equal opportunities.

Few expect colleges to seek a return to substantial discrimination against women. Even if they were to try, that would be difficult to do. In some areas - such as government-aided research - other federal rulings protect women from discrimination. And women themselves would not stand for a return to pre-Title IX days.

However, there may be one additional effect of the Supreme Court ruling. It may further deepen the so-called gender gap with which President Reagan has been struggling, inasmuch as his administration favored the narrow approach now taken by the court.

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