An Iowa federal judge has ruled that a gender equality expert’s opinion is both credible and reliable and has temporarily blocked the University of Iowa from cutting its women’s swimming and diving program.
On August 21, 2020, the University of Iowa announced its decision to eliminate women’s swimming and diving as a varsity intercollegiate sport for the 2021-22 academic year. Six students, Sage Ohlensehlen, Christina Kaufman, Alexa Puccini, Kelsey Drake, Miranda Vermeer, and Abbie Lyman, who are female student-athletes on the women’s swimming and diving team were torn between remaining at the school and pursuing their athletic careers elsewhere.
The students filed a class-action lawsuit against the University of Iowa, its president, and its athletic director, claiming that the University failed to provide equal participation, equal treatment, and equal scholarship opportunities for female athletes as required under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.
The students filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. On December 3, 2020, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. The court denied emergency injunctive relief, but ordered that the matter proceed on an expedited basis. The court reviewed each party’s written briefs, affidavits, and documentary evidence and held a hearing on the matter.
The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act requires universities that receive federal funding to submit an annual report detailing the total number of full-time male and female undergraduate students enrolled at the university, the varsity intercollegiate athletic teams it sponsors, and the number of participants on each team on the date of that team’s first competition.
According to the information that the University provided in response to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, the University of Iowa has been increasing its percentage of women undergraduate students over the past 10 years. Currently, the University offers 24 intercollegiate athletic programs; 13 are women’s teams and 11 are men’s teams.
At issue is whether the University of Iowa will comply with Title IX after eliminating the women’s swimming and diving team alongside three men’s teams. The students retained Dr. Donna Lopiano, Ph.D., to testify on their behalf. Dr. Lopiano reviewed the participation data and compared it with University-sponsored website rosters and raw competition data and opined that she was confident to a high degree of certainty that women’s intercollegiate athletics at University of Iowa was likely to lack sufficient proportionality to female student enrollment.
The University dismissed Dr. Lopiano’s opinions as “unduly speculative” and characterized them as “conspiracy theories.” The University made a motion that Dr. Lopiano’s opinions should be stricken from the record.
Upon review, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose determined that Dr. Lopiano was a highly credible expert and that her opinion was “exceedingly reliable.” Judge Rose noted that Dr. Lopiano is a highly accomplished expert on gender equity in intercollegiate athletics and Title IX compliance. Her opinion demonstrated that the students had a fair chance of demonstrating that the University is not in compliance with Title IX by providing its female athletes with athletic participation opportunities substantially proportionate to their representation in the student body.
Judge Rose granted the motion for a preliminary injunction, which prevents the University of Iowa from eliminating the women’s swimming and diving team or any other women’s intercollegiate athletic team until there is a full trial on the merits.