How the 1972 anti-discrimination law known as Title IX has played out in Williams athletics.
By Peter May ’73
In 1985, armed with a résumé that included a handful of coaching assignments—only two of which actually involved monetary compensation—Lisa Melendy arrived at Williams to coach the women’s varsity soccer team. Or so she thought.
For what she now remembers as a princely sum— $21,000—she soon discovered she was also expected to help coach the junior varsity and varsity women’s lacrosse teams and the junior varsity and varsity women’s squash teams. The squash assignment was especially challenging, given that Melendy’s only experience with the sport had been during a freshman physical education class at Smith College.
“I had no business coaching squash,’’ she says. “But that’s what colleges did back then. They would have never, ever done that for a men’s team.”
Melendy looks back on those years with equal parts wistfulness, consternation, and amusement—and she does so now from her vantage point as the school’s athletic director, the first woman in Williams history to hold the position. She oversees a department of 32 varsity sports for men and women and a staff of nearly 90 individuals, many of them part time. And, yes, that staff now includes separate coaches for women’s lacrosse, soccer, and squash.
Melendy’s ascension to the athletic director’s position came four decades after the passing of a landmark law to combat sex discrimination in colleges and universities across the country. Now known simply as Title IX, the law, signed by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, is composed of only 37 words. There is no mention of athletics in the law, but it has become synonymous with opportunity and advancement for women’s collegiate sports, even in the face of ongoing resistance and court challenges.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex…
Melendy herself is a beneficiary of the legislation—“I’m a Title IX baby,’’ she says. And her career path and trajectory mirror that of the legislation and its implementation. She played on the first girls’ soccer team at her high school in Hawaii (the same school attended by President Barack Obama; “He was a year behind me,’’ she says). Organizers had anticipated one team of 18 players, Melendy recalls. But when more than 60 girls showed up for tryouts, the school decided to field two varsity teams.
As an undergraduate at Smith, Melendy played soccer and lacrosse. She then coached both sports there as an uncompensated assistant her first year after graduation. That was a rarity back then, she says—not the lack of pay, but that “I actually had played soccer. That was sort of new. The other ones who coached soccer either hadn’t played the sport or were men.”
By the time Melendy arrived in Williamstown for her first full-time coaching job at the age of 25, Title IX had been in effect for more than a decade. But many athletic administrators didn’t seem to grasp its importance or implications. Equity disputes persisted across the country, and Williams was no exception. Melendy particularly remembers fighting for women’s locker facilities at Cole Field House and for separate uniforms for women’s field hockey and lacrosse. She was successful on both fronts.
Back then, the women’s soccer team practiced and played on one field, and there was no junior varsity squad. Meanwhile, the men had separate fields?for practices and games as well as a third field for their junior varsity team.
The women could use the men’s game field when the men didn’t need it. The school built a second field for the women in 1992.
“That’s one of the benefits of Williams,’’ Melendy says. “We’ve had the resources to do those kinds of things. That’s not true everywhere. We’ve been able to add facilities, programs, and coaches.”
Williams began to implement Title IX shortly after its first full entering class of women arrived in the fall of 1971. Back then Williams offered 15 varsity sports for men. Women could swim with the men’s junior varsity team, and there were informal teams for women’s basketball and field hockey.
All that began to change under the leadership of then-athletic director Bob Peck. From 1972 through 1979, Williams added 10 varsity sports for women. Five more have since been added (the most recent being golf during the 2004- 05 academic year, not long after Peck retired).
“It was a process of adding a few sports at a time,’’ Peck recalls. “It wasn’t too bumpy, because I got the funding and support I needed from the college. Most of the staff was supportive, though there was some opposition. It was a progression.”
In the big picture, Williams “did adjust over the years and did as good or better of a job than most of its peer institutions,” says Ellen (Josephson) Vargyas ’71, a transfer student from Mount Holyoke and one of the first women to graduate from Williams. As a lawyer in the 1980s and 1990s,
Vargyas worked on precedent-setting Title IX litigation including requiring schools to report on compliance and enforcing the Equal Pay Act.
Williams also received high marks from a campus committee established to review the college’s compliance with Title IX on the law’s 20th anniversary. In its report, the committee, chaired by Nancy McIntire (at the time Williams’ head of affirmative action and government relations), noted that Williams “provides rich and diverse opportunities for women as well as men, remarkable facilities, and an experienced, well-trained, competent, and committed staff.” The report added that ongoing monitoring was essential, with one unnamed committee member writing: “Williams should sweat the little stuff.”
One major issue, however, was parity between female and male coaches’ salaries. As a member of the Faculty Compensation Committee in the mid-1990s (coaches are considered assistant professors), Melendy worked?with committee chair and biology professor Heather Williams to uncover “systematic and marked gender inequities in the salaries within the athletic department,” according to their report. (Neither Melendy nor Williams will discuss dollar amounts, but in 1997 the Women’s Sports Foundation Gender Equity Report Card cited the average salary of female head coaches at Division III schools as $12,577, compared with $15,040 for men.) The committee’s report found no differences in training, experience, or performance that could account for the imbalance.
Then-President Harry Payne, in his first year at Williams, brought in two consultants (statistician and attorney Mary Gray of American University and attorney Deval Patrick, now the governor of Massachusetts) to review the findings. Williams, now the college’s William Dwight Whitney Professor of Biology, says the consultants “confirmed the substance and specifics of
the report Lisa and I had generated, called for prompt action to correct the situation, and strongly suggested that the academic faculty salaries should be reviewed as well.
“Adjustments were made, going forward, to the athletic department salaries,” Williams adds.
Around the same time as the salary dispute, a sophomore named Gretchen Engster ’95 (now Gretchen Howard) was taking a Winter Study course called “Inside College Athletics,” at which Vargyas was a guest speaker. Howard had played ice hockey during prep school, and several other colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) had women’s varsity ice hockey programs. But at Williams, she says, “It was a club sport.”
“The skill level of the girls was low,” Howard says. “The school gave us equipment, but it was pretty bad. They let us use the school vans, but we had to drive. We didn’t have a trainer. We didn’t get to rotate ice time with the guys. The only time we could practice was late at night, and, with no trainer, it was scary. One night we had to rush a girl to the hospital.”
Howard told Vargyas of the situation, and the lawyer’s response was simple and to the point: You have a case.
“Come at them hard,” Howard recalls Vargyas saying. “This can’t be a funding issue. It’s very un-Williams-like.”
Howard and a few others did just that. The next fall, Peck met the players in their locker room—“It was a storage area,’’ Howard says—and announced that the women’s program was being upgraded to varsity status. In one of her final games for Williams’ varsity team, Howard estimates that she made more than 70 saves before losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to Middlebury in the final minutes.
“No one would have ever thought that we could have stayed with a program like Middlebury in just our second year,’’ Howard says. “It felt like a huge win.”
Women’s crew, which started as a club sport in 1972, experienced similar growing pains as ice hockey’s. When Donna Lisker ’88 went out for the team as a first-year student, she says, “We were treated like second-class citizens within our own program.” The women’s coach was part time. Equipment consisted of hand-me-downs from the men.
Lisker and her teammates wanted women’s crew to be recognized as a varsity sport. They had a letter-writing campaign ready to go, petitions ready to be served, and plenty of supporting documentation for Peck. But before Lisker could even meet with the athletic director, he moved to upgrade the program.
“The college saw the big picture pretty well,” Lisker says. “The little picture, things like equipment and uniforms, not so well.”
Lisker, who got her first varsity letter as a senior, is now the associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke University and teaches a freshman seminar on sports, devoting an entire section to Title IX. She recalls that on the law’s 25th anniversary, the National Women’s Law Center filed suit against 25 schools, including Duke, charging that they weren’t in compliance. “All of them settled,” she says. “Duke added rowing and women’s lacrosse.
“Schools found they had to balance football with sports that have large numbers of women participating,” Lisker adds. “Rowing is a big sport for women. It’s turned 180 degrees since I was at Williams.”
These days, the women’s crew team at Williams is setting Division III records, last spring winning its seventh consecutive NCAA title. Women’s tennis also set a Division III record last spring, with five consecutive titles. Overall, women’s teams have accounted for 20 of the school’s last 27 titles. Head tennis coach Alison Swain ’01 recognizes that both she and her players have been beneficiaries of Title IX. As a four-year varsity player with her own NCAA title at Williams, she had all the benefits and opportunities afforded to male players, from transportation to court time. So have her players, who, in Swain’s five years as coach, have amassed an overall record of 111-13 and an NCAA tournament record of 25-0.?Swain says her tennis career would not have been possible 40 years ago. And while her players are “blissfully unaware” of the law, she says, “In some ways, that’s the success of Title IX. They have these opportunities that they can almost take for granted. And they should be taken for granted.”
Melendy says the challenge now is to continue forward with a very different demographic than in years past. In the mid-1990s, when McIntire released her Title IX 20th anniversary report, women accounted for 45 percent of Williams’ student body. In 2011, mirroring a trend in Division III schools in particular, women comprised 52.3 percent.
But, like many programs, Williams’ is “maxed out in terms of the number of teams, the number of athletes we have to fill those teams, and the capacity to fund them,” Melendy says. Williams’ competitors by and large don’t field women’s varsity fencing, gymnastics, wrestling, or water polo teams. Five of the 11 NESCAC schools don’t have golf, and two don’t have ice hockey.
The college also continues to “sweat the little stuff,” as it was advised to do in McIntire’s report. Williams has not only worked to attract female coaches but also to retain them over the years. Ten of its women’s varsity teams are coached by women, many of them veterans like lacrosse’s Chris Mason and softball’s Kris Herman. For sports like cross-country, swimming and diving, and track and field, in which men compete alongside but not necessarily against women at meets, the same male head coach coaches both sexes, with male and female assistant coaches.
With more and more women coaching, and more and more dual-career families, Melendy says childcare and other quality-of-life issues are becoming increasingly important. So is access for low-income athletes, since the number of physical education and city-run recreation programs has declined while the costs of participating in youth clubs has risen. Going up against recruited athletes who have more experience, Melendy adds, “You can’t get good enough fast enough as a walk-on. Something is lost.”
Ultimately, though, what was true two decades ago still holds true today. At Williams, women are on a level playing field with men when it comes to athletics. And nowhere is that clearer than in the proverbial corner office itself. When Athletic Director Harry Sheehy ’75 left for Dartmouth in 2010, Melendy was an obvious choice to replace him, having served as the acting athletic director in 2006-07 and the interim director in 2010-11.
Swain was on the search committee to hire Sheehy’s successor. She remembers its members extolling Melendy’s long list of qualifications and work experience, especially in coaching. But there was one part of her résumé that didn’t come up—Melendy’s sex. That speaks volumes about how things have changed at Williams.
The woman who claimed she had no business coaching the squash team when she first came to Williams, who during her tenure had raised thorny issues of equity and fought hard for change—and got promoted in the process—was now easily the best candidate to fill this particular, critical vacancy.
Says Swain, “We were focused on hiring the best person.”
In 1988, just three years after she began her career as head coach of the women’s varsity soccer team at Williams, Lisa Melendy got a promotion. Named the assistant director of athletics, she joined a very small group of women around the country entering the ranks of athletic administration.
That group hasn’t grown by much.
Today, women account for approximately one in four athletics administra- tors—and one in five athletic directors—in colleges and universities across?the U.S., according to the recent study “Women in Intercollegiate Sport,” by R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, Brooklyn College professors, emerita. Meanwhile, 9.2 percent of athletics departments have no female administrators.
At Williams, Melendy continued to move up through the administrative ranks, coaching women’s soccer on top of her administrative duties. By the time she eventually handed over the reins to Michelyne Pinard in 2001, she’d achieved a 75.8 percent winning percentage over 16 years.
Melendy spent 11 years as associate director of athletics and served two stints as acting director before she was named athletic director in 2011. She is now one of three women to hold the director’s job in the 11-member New England Small College Athletic Conference. The others are at Amherst and Colby. Across Division III, one in three athletic directors is female.
And Melendy expects more women to enter the administrative ranks. “There is a wave of women administrators coming to the fore,” she says. “We’re of the age where we’re now prepared to be athletic directors. The ability to accept leader- ship from women has changed. My younger, male colleagues are used to having women as leaders and respecting their activity level and skill.”
It’s certainly a far cry from the early days of her career, when Melendy was paid $500 as assistant coach of women’s soccer at Keene State and $500 as head of women’s club lacrosse at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She remembers applying for one coaching job only to be told by her prospective boss that she didn’t have the proper astrological sign for the position.
“There’s a difference now,” she says. “It’s evolved over time.”
Then, after a pause, she adds, “But I don’t think I could have been hired for this job 10 years ago without there being some kind of revolt.”
—Peter May ’73 covered the Boston Celtics and the NBA for 25 years for the Hartford Courant and Boston Globe. He’s now a frequent contributor to The New York Times and ESPN.com.