University of Iowa must be held to 'high standard of equality,' says one of women who won $400K Title IX settlement
A little over 850 miles away from Iowa City, Sage Ohlensehlen received a text message she had been anticipating for months.
A first-year law student at Southern Methodist University, the former Iowa Hawkeyes swim captain was one of six plaintiffs that brought a class-action lawsuit against her alma mater one year ago.
The text she received turned her routine September weekday into anything but. The University of Iowa had reached a settlement in the plaintiffs' Title IX lawsuit that stemmed from a 2020 athletic department attempt to cut women's swimming.
The result: Women's swimming will remain an Iowa Hawkeyes sport until at least 2028, and the university will have to pay out nearly $400,000 to cover legal costs.
When Ohlensehlen reached out to her fellow plaintiffs, there was only one emotion that came to mind.
"I think it was a huge sigh of relief," Ohlensehlen said. "Especially because so many of us, our lives have been completely altered by this decision. … I feel like I can finally move on and heal from this, and the university can heal as well and make amends."
The women who brought the lawsuit "look at what they've done here as a pathbreaker," said attorney Jim Larew, who represented the plaintiffs against the university. "I think there's every possibility that they've succeeded not just in re-establishing an important women's swimming and diving team but opening the way at Iowa and other universities in expanding opportunities in other varsity sports."
Lawsuit stemmed from decision to cut women's swimming
The group of six Iowa female athletes — four swimmers, one rugby player and a university student who wrestled in high school — filed the complaint after the university announced last year it would cut women's swimming. The plaintiffs' complaint, filed in Iowa district court, said that the university was violating Title IX, which requires educational programs that receive federal funding to offer equal educational opportunities.
A Register analysis of the lawsuit in January found that the university of Iowa faced a severe uphill battle in defending its decision to cut women's swimming and its Title IX implementation throughout the athletic department.
The settlement was first reported Wednesday by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Iowa's payout amount reaches close to $400,000, according to documents obtained by The Des Moines Register on Thursday. That amount will be paid to attorney fees, litigation costs and an undisclosed sum repaid to an anonymous donor who funded the cost of the injunction to prevent the move to cut women's swimming and diving.
The six plaintiffs — Ohlensehlen, Christina Kaufman, Alexa Puccini, Kelsey Drake, Miranda Vermeer and Abbie Lyman — had not sought damages. But it did not come without consequence.
As a result of the initial cancellation of women's swimming, Puccini sought a transfer and is now at the University of Arizona. Ohlensehlen hoped to attend Iowa law but after the cancellation decided that she couldn't apply in good faith because at that moment she didn't want to be a Hawkeye anymore.
Larew described his clients as "reluctant plaintiffs." They loved their university and to switch from lifelong, die-hard fans to suing the school was a challenging process, he said, but he thinks the result made this past year worth it for them.
"Although posed as adversaries to the university, they sought to improve the university and make it a better place," Larew said. "Not everyone, particularly when they filed, either understood or supported what they were doing.
"By the time it was over, however, I think they viewed this a very positive experience for themselves as growing people and found it reaffirming that they could cause a large institution like the University of Iowa to be required to align with federal law."
The settlement is the first step in what could be a multiyear process in Title IX compliance. What Ohlensehlen and her fellow plaintiffs hope is that Iowa will continue to adhere to the standard set by this decision.
"I'm really happy with what the university has decided to do," Ohlensehlen said. "I think it's not necessarily that they need to do more, but we need to make sure they stay at the standard. Right now we're holding them at the standard they need to be held at: a high standard of equality among men and women athletes."
Iowa hires Title IX compliance monitor
Iowa spokesperson Steve Roe referred to the school's previous comments when reached on Thursday.
"As part of the Title IX lawsuit settlement, we agreed to add a women's sport," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said on Sept. 23. "Our decision was to add the sport of women's wrestling. Again, at the University of Iowa, we believe that sport makes the most sense in terms of adding. We are committed to Title IX, always will be, always have been."
Additionally as part of the settlement, the university agreed to maintain a women's swimming and diving team for no less than seven more years. Iowa restored the women's swimming and diving team in February following the lawsuit and outside criticism of the school's Title IX practices.
Also, the university hired Gabriel Feldman, a faculty member at Tulane University, to serve as a monitor of Iowa's Title IX compliance for the next three years.
Female wrestler praised as 'brave' to join lawsuit
The university announced in September that women's wrestling would be added. The newly founded wrestling team will offer the maximum number of full scholarships (10) and field a 30-woman roster beginning in the 2023-24 season.
Lyman, the final plaintiff added and a wrestler, was instrumental in helping push the wrestling agenda forward, Larew said. She began wrestling as a senior in high school and placed at the Iowa girls' state wrestling tournament in 2020. When she enrolled at Iowa that fall, she was disappointed that Iowa, a men's wrestling powerhouse, did not offer a women's wrestling equivalent.
"It was a particularly brave thing for her to have done to join as a plaintiff," Larew said. "As they say in football, 'Next man up.' I think you can say, 'Next woman up.'
"That is one woman pushing the system and opening the system for others and that will be her contribution. And I don't think she's dissatisfied in contributing in that way."
Roster spots in women's rowing to be capped
In the settlement, Iowa will also cap the number of varsity roster spots on the women's rowing team at 75. The lawsuit argued that Iowa was inflating those numbers as a way around Title IX requirements.
On Tuesday, Barta announced that rowing coach Andrew Carter resigned after eight years.
"To inflate the count dilutes the experience that women athletes have in the program," Larew said. "What should have been happening … will be a downward pressure at other schools, for the good of the sport saying we're not going to do this on the cheap.
"Women athletes at our university deserve high-quality experiences, and we're going to do this not by inflating team sizes in existing sports, but we're going to add additional sports. In Iowa's case, the first one happened to be (women's) wrestling."
With the addition of women’s wrestling, Iowa will offer 22 sports, including 14 women’s teams and eight men’s teams..
"Women's wrestling might well serve as a symbolic sport for the new era of renewed leadership in women's sports," Larew said. "If that happens, then I believe that no one will be happier about that development than the persons who served as six plaintiffs in this class-action lawsuit."
Kennington Smith is the Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.