Updated 5:32 p.m., December 18, 2020
A federal judge approved a settlement between the University and a group of female student-athletes Tuesday to reinstate the women’s fencing and equestrian teams to varsity status following their demotion in May.
The approval of the settlement by U.S. District Chief Judge John McConnell Jr. '80 follows the University’s Sept. 17 announcement that it had reached a proposed settlement with the student-athletes, after a months-long legal standoff between the two parties.
Under the settlement, the University also commits not to eliminate or demote a varsity women’s team in the next four years. In addition, the 1998 Cohen v. Brown equal opportunity agreement, which did not previously have an expiration date, is now set to dissolve Aug. 31, 2024.
Amy Cohen ’92 and a group of 12 other plaintiffs filed the original Cohen v. Brown University lawsuit in 1992, when female student-athletes alleged that the University had violated Title IX equal opportunity requirements. As part of the settlement of Cohen v. Brown University, the two parties established the 1998 Joint Agreement, which requires the University to maintain a percentage of female student-athletes proportionate to the number of female students enrolled.
Cohen and the 12 other plaintiffs filed a new motion in the original suit in June 2020, claiming that the University had violated the 1998 Joint Agreement in its demotion of five women’s teams to club status, The Herald previously reported.
The University demoted 11 varsity teams to club status this May, while also promoting the co-ed and women’s sailing teams to varsity status as part of the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative. This initiative was partially reversed in June when the University agreed to reinstate men’s track, field and cross country teams after backlash from students and alumni, The Herald previously reported.
The plaintiffs claimed in their June motion that the demotion of women’s teams decreased the number of opportunities for women to participate in intercollegiate athletics, disproportionately affecting female student-athletes.
With only men’s track, field and cross country reinstated “and no other changes made,” they wrote in their June motion, “women’s opportunities will be (depending on the year) 66.83 percent or 69.35 (percent) of the total eliminated — bringing women farther from equality in Brown’s program.”
After McConnell ordered that the University disclose documentation related to the sports cuts, a series of emails exchanged between key administrators including President Christina Paxson P’19, Athletics Director Jack Hayes and Chancellor Samuel Mencoff ’78 P’11 P’15 was released for review in August. The correspondence revealed intentions to “get us out” of the consent decree, as Paxson wrote in one email, The Herald previously reported.
The exchange drew criticism from the plaintiffs as well as Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, who wrote in an Aug. 27 press release: “Brown University’s clear disdain for promoting gender equity in its athletic program is deeply disappointing.”
In a September court filing, the University denied claims of noncompliance with the agreement, The Herald previously reported. In a Sept. 2 press release accompanying the filing, the University reaffirmed its support of female athletes and argued that plaintiffs “have petitioned the court, not on a legal basis, but based on a false narrative that focuses on Brown’s acknowledged frustration with the unique constraints of the Joint Agreement.”
“When they filed their Emergency Motion in June, Plaintiffs did not yet have access to the most recent roster Declaration Forms which unequivocally show that Brown will once again be in compliance with the Joint Agreement in the 2020-21 academic year,” the filing stated. “It is perhaps unsurprising that since Plaintiffs came into possession of that data, they have resorted to spurious conspiracy claims and focused their energies on the process that led to Brown’s decision, rather than the hard data that makes Brown’s compliance with the Joint Agreement all but a certainty.”
The ACLU of Rhode Island filed a Sept. 8 reply brief refuting claims that their allegations were conspiratorial in nature, and wrote that Brown continued to be in violation of the Joint Agreement “with every day that passes,” The Herald previously reported.
The University announced Sept. 17 that it had come to a settlement with the plaintiffs, ending the legal standoff, but the settlement needed to be formally approved by the federal court. Given the nature of the class action lawsuit, the court could reject or accept the settlement but not modify it, so the women’s equestrian and fencing teams were reinstated in September after the preliminary approval, Lynette Labinger, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told The Herald.
“We would have liked to have brought all five (demoted women’s) teams back, but given that Brown had cut its program on the men's side as well, that was not something that was within the range of possibilities in the ultimate outcome so long as Brown was determined to reduce the size of its program,” Labinger said.
In a Sept. 17 press release, Paxson and Hayes argued that the Joint Agreement served as a barrier to improving the competitiveness of Brown’s varsity programs.
“The Cohen agreement served an important purpose when it was signed 22 years ago, but Brown’s commitment to women athletes transcends the agreement,” Paxson wrote. “We can provide excellent athletics opportunities for women and men, be a leader in upholding Title IX and have a competitive varsity program. And we will.”
During a Dec. 15 fairness hearing for the settlement's final court approval, McConnell acknowledged Paxson’s commitment to gender equity in athletics. “I feel compelled to say that it’s my opinion that Brown President (Christina) Paxson got an undeserved bum’s rap in the public,” he said.
Paxson “has had a commitment to the consent decree and to Title IX that perhaps prior presidents at Brown have not had that caused this lawsuit in the first place, and I believe because of the release of certain documents she got a bad rap,” he said.
“I think history will tell us that she has been a strong and capable advocate for gender equity in Brown athletics,” he said. “And as an alum and a citizen, I thank her for that.
He also commended Labinger for her tenacity in representing the student-athletes. “I have known her for many years,” he said. “The term ‘zealous advocate’ will be on her tombstone because it is how she has lived her life and how she has done it masterfully.”
“We're pleased to have reached this settlement, which enables us to remain a leader in providing equal opportunities to women and men and to simultaneously ensure that our student-athletes can compete on teams that are some of the most competitive among university peers,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald.