Brown University officials hoped to quash 'pestilential' gender equity sports agreement, emails show

Brown University athletes fight for reinstatement

Attorney Remi Spencer explains whether Brown University athletes can fight for reinstatement for certain varsity sports being demoted.

Recently released emails uncovered amid a lawsuit accusing Brown University of violating a 22-year-old agreement to ensure gender equity in varsity sports in accordance with federal Title IX mandates show school officials' hopes that they could kill the agreement altogether, calling it a “pestilential thing.”

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Brown University President Christina Paxson and Chancellor Samuel Mencoff are in hot water after emails show their attempts to quash Title IX backlash in the wake of the university’s decision to scrap eight varsity sports teams, five of which were women’s teams.

The decision, which the school announced on May 28, prompted public outcry and threats of legal action from student-athletes, including some incoming freshmen who say they were recruited to the school and even turned down other offers to play there.

BROWN UNIVERSITY STUDENT-ATHLETES FIGHT FOR REINSTATEMENT OF VARSITY SPORTS

“Could we use this moment, where anger and frustration, especially from track and squash are intense and building, to go after the consent decree once and for all?” wrote Mencoff in a June 4 email to Paxson, according to the emails released Thursday. “Could we channel all this emotion away from anger at Brown to anger at the court and kill this pestilential thing? The argument would be that the consent decree is forcing us to eliminate these sports, and the court would then be bombarded with emails and calls as we are now.”

Paxson responded to Mencoff that she thought his suggestion was “a good idea.”

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“This might be the perfect moment to petition the court to get us out of this agreement, which would let us restore men’s track, field and [cross country] and still remain in compliance with Title IX,” she wrote. “The question would be how quickly can we do this.”

Brown University Squash Team co-captain Alexa Jacobs (Photo courtesy of Alexa Jacobs)

Attorneys for Public Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island accused the Ivy League school at the end of June of violating the terms of the 1998 agreement when it announced at the end of May that it would cut women’s fencing, golf, squash, skiing and equestrian teams in an effort to streamline its athletic department.

Several men’s sports were also cut, although cross-country and track and field were later restored.

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Brown University said at the end of June it would add co-ed and women’s varsity sailing teams to stay in compliance with the agreement.

But the Providence-based school can’t comply with the original settlement based on “teams that do not exist,” according to the ACLU and Public Justice.

“Defendants’ decision to eliminate five women’s intercollegiate athletic varsity teams, and with them, meaningful participation opportunities for women, constitutes a gross and willful violation of the joint agreement to the immediate and irreparable harm of the class,” according to the motion filed at the time. It asks the court to enforce the agreement and stop Brown from cutting sports unless it can prove that it is not violating the agreement.

The 1998 agreement stems from a lawsuit filed after Brown dropped women’s gymnastics and volleyball as varsity sports in 1991.

Amy Cohen, a Brown gymnast named as a plaintiff in the original lawsuit, was listed as a plaintiff in the new motion.

Lynette Labinger, cooperating counsel for the ACLU of Rhode Island, said she and the other plaintiffs had “expressed concern that Brown’s commitment to gender equity and its women athletes was insincere and simply window-dressing” when they filed the lawsuit in June.

Sayles Hall on the campus of Brown University. (iStock)

“Through discovery, we learned the unfortunate truth:  Brown does not care,” wrote Labinger, who was also the lead attorney in the original suit. “Brown would rather dismantle the entire process that it claims prompted the downsizing than provide its women athletes – its own students – the program required by law and by the court’s order.”

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Paxson specifically mentioned Cohen in the recently released emails, when she asked Mencoff and a second person for their reactions to a letter she planned to send later that day about her decision to reinstate the track and field and cross-country teams.

“Our concern is that this could rile up the Cohens of the world and put us in a defensive posture,” she wrote. “We need space to work out a rock-solid legal strategy and then go on the offensive.”

University spokesman Brian Clark did not immediately respond to FOX Business’ request for comment, but told the Providence Journal the ACLU was using “snippets from documents taken out of context to develop a public narrative in lieu of a viable legal claim.”

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“Brown has an exemplary record of providing varsity athletic opportunities to women, with a record that stands near the top among its peers,” Clark said in a statement to the outlet. “For decades, the university has met its obligations under Cohen – an agreement that established requirements not faced by any other institution of higher education in the country – annually reporting to the plaintiffs’ attorneys about compliance. At no time has anyone raised doubt about Brown’s commitment to complying with Title IX. The changes to the varsity roster lineup remain in compliance with Cohen, and if Brown’s varsity teams were able to compete this fall season, we would be in compliance for the upcoming academic year as well.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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