WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is giving colleges a "model survey" to gauge women's interest in sports, and it's drawing a strong response before it has even been used.
The new Education Department (search) tool is part of the latest federal guidance on Title IX, the landmark law prohibiting discrimination based on sex at any school receiving federal money. The law is credited with expanding sports opportunities for women, but it is also blamed by some for canceling men's sports programs at schools that are trying to maintain a balance among teams.
Schools long have been able to comply with the Title IX (search) law by proving they have met the sports interests of women, but never before has the government promoted a way to measure that. Education Department leaders say their new Internet-based survey will allow schools to gauge scientifically whether they must expand or create women's teams to meet demand.
But critics contend the tool opens a huge opportunity for schools to skirt the law.
Under the new plan, schools are encouraged to survey periodically all their full-time undergraduates, or at least all of the underrepresented sports gender, presumably women.
The online survey encompasses eight screens, or pages. It asks students to choose the sports on which they wish to comment and then asks for their interest in participating in those sports, their experience and their ability to compete on the collegiate level.
Schools are advised to conduct the survey in a way designed to generate a big response, such as asking students to fill out the survey online during class registration or by sending students an e-mail with the survey link and then following up on it.
If the survey responses from students show insufficient interest in women's sports — or if students don't bother to answer — schools can presume they are in compliance.
"Finally, the Bush administration has decided to create a viable test," said Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council (search), a group of coaches and athletic groups.
Until now, many schools have complied by ensuring that their percentage of female athletes is proportionate to female enrollment, often creating new teams. Schools can also comply by showing a pattern of expanding opportunities for women.
The new guidance drew rebukes from Title IX advocacy groups.
Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center (search), called the reliance on an Internet-based survey a "perverse effort to undermine the law."
"Who responds to e-mail surveys, period?" she said Monday. "I think it's really irresponsible, and it's giving schools the easy way out."
Judith Sweet, a top NCAA (search) official, said surveys could easily misrepresent the interests and abilities of women in sports, which tend to grow once opportunities are provided.
"We are concerned with anything that potentially weakens Title IX, and it appears that this new clarification has the likelihood to significantly do that," Sweet said.
The guidance, posted on the department Web site Friday, began to generate attention among lawmakers too. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he was concerned it could narrow sports opportunities for women.
Department officials said the survey is optional and fulfills an agency promise to give universities more information about how to comply. The new guidance is based on a review of more than 130 civil rights cases between 1992 and 2002.
"Ensuring equal opportunity is a critical part of the department's mission," said James Manning, who oversees civil rights for the agency. "It's one of our highest priorities. ... Nothing is changing that."
The Clinton administration allowed schools to use surveys, but only as one of several measures to gauge women's interest in sports.