In August of 2012, the Athletics Department announced that the women’s rugby team would become Harvard’s 42nd varsity team.
The change, years in the making, was expected to improve the team’s ability to recruit athletes. With more backing from the Athletics Department, students at the time hoped, women’s rugby would become more competitive and rigorous.
But almost five years later, some current and former members of the program charge that the Athletics Department has still not done enough to support the team. Members of the team argue that the program does not receive enough recruiting spots or equitable compensation for their coaches, among other concerns.
“We understood the elevation of rugby to mean that rugby thereafter would be treated the same as other Harvard varsity sports,” wrote members of the women’s rugby program in a letter to University President Drew G. Faust in October 2016. “That has not been the case. We are still treated by the Athletic Department more like a club team than a varsity team.”
In a series of meetings with and letters to administrators over the past year, Parker, Learned, and other women’s rugby affiliates have repeatedly criticized Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise and the Athletics Department for its treatment of the program, arguing that the Department does not properly support the women’s rugby team nor women’s teams generally.
The members, including current team Captain Maya M. Learned ’18 and head coach Suzanne Parker, penned the October letter after attempts to address their concerns with Scalise left them frustrated.
“We talked to Bob Scalise, the Athletic Director, and then we decided that if he wasn’t meeting our needs, we should go straight to his boss,” Learned said.
In an emailed statement, Athletics Department spokesperson Timothy R. Williamson declined to comment on several specific questions for this story.
“While we are unable to comment on personnel matters, we take seriously issues of equity across our athletic teams,” Williamson wrote. “As such, Harvard Athletics periodically takes a deeper look at issues of equity across our programs, and we are currently engaged in that process.”
Not only do the members of the program hold that the Department’s process for addressing their concerns has been unreliable, they question whether Harvard’s Athletics Department complies with anti-sex discrimination law Title IX.
The complaints and meetings have spurred an administrative review of both the women’s rugby program and gender equity in the Athletics Department. What began as a single team’s complaints about the support it receives from the Athletics Department has expanded into a Department-wide review of gender pay equity and a Human Resources review of how the Department responded to the team’s concerns.
FAS Dean Michael D. Smith said last week that the investigations are ongoing.
“We obviously take very seriously these sorts of claims and want to investigate then,” said Smith. “If there are found issues, then, I think we have demonstrated this in the past, we undertake to correct them, and move forward both within the law but also within what we all want to accomplish with gender equity amongst our athletic endeavors.”
The investigations are the latest set of reviews of the Athletics Department as it grapples with a number of complaints about gender and and administrative oversight.
“It is time for transparency and to take action to eradicate discrimination at Harvard and especially in the Athletic Department,” members of the women’s rugby program wrote in an April letter to Faust.
‘Unequal Treatment of Our Program’
On Oct. 4, Learned, Parker, and two former captains sent a letter to Faust, calling for a meeting to discuss “unequal treatment of our program, namely insufficient recruiting support and coaching salaries.”
The women’s rugby team is allotted four recruiting spots per year, a relatively low number that some members of the programs said means that many of the players on the team are walk-ons. Learned said this practice increases the risk of concussions and other injuries.
“You have players who are playing every minute of every game the whole season, which leads to a lot of injuries, or a lot of walk-ons who will come on and play one game and end up with a concussion because they haven’t had enough training time to know how to deal with the contact of rugby,” Learned said.
The letter describes the team’s reliance on postering, tabling in dining halls, and emailing over listservs to field a complete team of at least 15 athletes. At the start of the 2016 pre-season and in the season opener game, the team had 14 healthy players, according to the letter.
Several other members of the women’s rugby team declined to comment.
Beyond discussing the number of recruiting spots granted to the women’s rugby team, the authors of the October letter argue that compensation for the rugby program’s coaching staff is not equitable with the salaries for coaches of other field sports.
“Our coaches are paid significantly less than their female counterparts who coach comparable team field sports,” the four authors wrote. “The disparity is even greater when compared to head coaches of men’s team field sports.”
According to statistics from the Department of Education for the 2015-2016 school year, head coaches of female teams made roughly $34,000 less on average than the head coaches of men’s teams. The gap is present between assistant coaches of male and female teams, too: On average, assistant coaches for women’s sports earned $39,006 compared to $53,983 for assistant coaches for men’s teams.
Parker declined to comment on her salary, though the average salary for the head coach of a women’s team at Harvard is $80,097. The head coaches of men’s teams make, on average, $114,196 a year. Median and individual salaries are not publicly available.
While similar wage gaps between coaches of men’s and women’s teams exist within the majority of institutions in the Ivy League, Parker said in an interview Harvard should look beyond its peers.
“Just because other institutions pay female coaches less than male coaches does not mean it is legal or ethical, and it is definitely not exemplary,” she said. “In fact, choosing to compensate female coaches on that basis merely perpetuates historic discrimination.”
Emails sent over the women’s rugby listserv also describe efforts to bolster the team’s finances through donations from family members of athletes and t-shirt sales.
“Once again, please know that every gift counts and this program can not be successful without every one working together,” Parker wrote in an email to the team.
The October letter had been the result of months of attempted communication and meetings with Scalise and other Athletics Department administrators. In a December email to members of the women’s rugby team, Learned explained the rationale for contacting Faust.
“Over the past year Sue has been engaged in conversations with the athletic department in an attempt to create more equal opportunities for female athletes at Harvard,” Learned wrote. “Unfortunately, these conversations were not successful.”
While the letter did not lead to a meeting with Faust, Learned and Parker met with representatives of Harvard’s office of human resources, which handles matters related to Harvard employees. In a University document obtained by The Crimson, the October letter to Faust was listed as the impetus behind two separate assessments of the department.
In November, Harvard hired Alexandra D. Thaler, an attorney at Bello / Welsh LLP, to conduct an independent review of the alleged “inequitable treatment of the Women’s Varsity Rugby Program relating to staffing and recruiting.” Thaler was also tasked with reviewing how administrators in Athletics Department had responded to Parker’s initial complaints, according to a letter members of the rugby team sent in December.
The complaints also prompted Harvard to hire Janet P. Judge ’85 as an external investigator to review gender and pay equity in the Athletics Department beginning this semester.
“The goal of this letter was to have a conversation about our concerns in regard to the unequal treatment of our team, but also the fact that this is a much larger issue at the school as a whole,” Learned wrote in the December email to the team.
‘Devoid of Any Indicia of Objectivity’
Soon after the meetings with Human Resources administrators and the beginning of Thaler’s investigation, though, the same four authors again began raising concerns about the Athletics Department.
In a Dec. 1 letter to Chris Ciotti, Harvard’s associate dean of human resources, and Nina Collins, associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Learned, Parker, and two former captains of the team wrote that Thaler’s investigation did not appear to be impartial.
“[W]e lack confidence that the investigation will involve a truthful consideration of the issues, or yield an appropriate result,” they wrote.
In particular, they criticized the way in which investigators had interviewed members of the program, holding meetings with Parker and players separately. They also charged that Judge—who was tasked with reviewing gender and pay equity in the Athletics Department—and Thaler were not sufficiently independent from Harvard.
Thaler previously represented Harvard in a lawsuit in 2013. As an undergraduate, Judge played on the varsity women’s soccer team, which Scalise coached prior to his role as Athletic Director. Judge also served as Assistant Director of Athletics from 1986 to 1990.
“As it stands, your proposed review of our unequal pay claim is devoid of any indicia of objectivity, fairness or gathering of appropriate facts and applying them to the relevant laws,” the authors wrote.
Neither Judge nor Thaler responded to requests for comment.
The authors of the letter also took aim at an “Overview Document” that Harvard had sent summarizing the investigation. According to the letter, Ciotti and Collins articulated a version of the authors’ concerns in a document to the players and coach. The authors wrote that the document’s articulation differed too widely from the issues they had raised both in the previous letter and in the November meeting.
“From our perspective…the issues intended to be raised by us have not been discussed with us or stated accurately for purposes of framing an analysis or investigation,” they wrote.
In the letter, the current and former captains and Parker wrote that they doubted whether Thaler’s investigation could adequately address their complaints.
“Harvard’s and Ms. Thaler’s proposed method of investigating Harvard’s treatment of the Women’s Varsity Rugby Program by interviewing individuals will not lead to a determination of whether Harvard treats the Women’s Varsity Rugby Program in compliance with Title IX,” they wrote.
The team members and head coach also criticize the Athletics Department’s involvement in the review of its own practices regarding gender and pay equity.
“To be clear, neither Bob Scalise nor any administrator in the Athletic Department should have a role in formulating, conducting or reviewing an investigation into the issue raised here, nor should they be part of a group that hears and discusses the findings or makes recommendations,” they wrote. “Harvard’s current proposed process gives the appearance of protecting Bob Scalise and/or Harvard at the expense of a correct and thorough review.”
Williamson declined to comment beyond his initial statement.
‘Intrinsic Culture of Sexism’
In the months that followed, the four authors began to conduct their own informal review of pay and gender equity in Harvard’s Athletics Department. On April 4, they again wrote a letter to Faust with their conclusions, urging Faust to meet with them and address what they called an “intrinsic culture of sexism” in the Athletics Department.
“As we looked into how Harvard allocates resources, especially recruiting targets and financial resources, we found data which revealed that Harvard is not and has not been in compliance with Title IX or Massachusetts pay equity laws,” Parker said in an interview.
Title IX stipulates that all institutions receiving federal funds must provide equal opportunities for men and women. For the Athletics Department at Harvard, this means offering comparable facilities and equipment, administrative support, and recruitment resources to both men’s and women’s teams.
Title IX compliant institutions must also fulfill one of three additional categories, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A school must either have a proportional ratio of male to female athletes, regularly add programs for the underrepresented gender, or otherwise “fully and effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.”
In their letter, the members of the women’s rugby program maintain that Harvard does not meet any of these three categories for gender equity.
“It may appear, superficially, that our Athletic Department is gender equitable, given that 21 varsity sports are offered each to males and females. But the underlying numbers tell a different story,” the authors wrote.
In particular, the authors argue that gender balance in the Athletics Department is not representative of the student body—according to the Department of Education statistics, female student-athletes comprise 41 percent of athletes, while 47 percent of the total student body is female. They also hold that the Department has not consistently elevated women’s teams to varsity status nor proved that it has met the needs of female athletes at the school.
The authors suggest that the Athletics Department’s structure is at the root of the problem. They describe a three tier-system for categorizing varsity teams. According to the letter, in the top tier are the approximately 166 male athletes from the ice hockey, football, and basketball teams, compared to around 43 female athletes from the women’s basketball and ice hockey teams.
To the letter’s authors, this system perpetuates gender inequality “by disproportionately favoring male athletes, especially in the top tier.”
Williamson did not comment on whether the Athletics Department uses a tier-based system to represent and allocate resources to teams, but Faust did respond to Learned about the emailed letter on April 10.
“As you may recall, I asked FAS to look into the concerns raised in your letter to me last fall,” Faust wrote in an email obtained by The Crimson. “I have been advised that that review is ongoing. I have also made sure that FAS is aware of your most recent communication.”
Almost a month after Faust’s response, Learned said the relatively slow pace and small scope of the administrative response has been frustrating.
“They weren’t addressing what was the most important part, which was the Title IX audit,” said Learned. “Overall, it’s been very frustrating dealing with Harvard administration just because this is such a glaring issue that I deal with everyday and my teammates deal with every day, and any women in athletics deals with every day.”
The HR and Athletics Department gender equity reviews come in the midst of a series of other assessments and discussions about gender and culture in the Harvard Athletics. The department is currently working with a group of consultants from the National Consortium for Academics and Sports to conduct a cultural assessment of the athletics program.
The review follows reports in the fall that revealed that past men’s soccer and men’s cross country teams created documents with sexually explicit comments about female athletes. An Office of General Counsel review revealed that the practice continued among the men’s soccer team up through the 2016 season, leading to the team’s season’s cancellation. Following an OGC review of the men’s cross country team, the Athletic Department put the team on “athletic probation.”
“The behavior of the mens’ soccer and cross-country teams reflect an intrinsic culture of sexism in the Athletic Department,” wrote the current and former captains and Parker in their April 4 letter. “We hope that the consultants hired to address team culture focus on the deeply rooted sexism that taints everyday life for females in that department, and that the resulting report is shared for all to see. We also believe this sexism should be acknowledged and addressed at the highest level of our institution.”
The consultants from NCAS have circulated a survey to student athletes as well as met in working groups with captains, specific teams, and other groups of athletes.
Additionally, Harvard human resources has been leading an assessment of the women’s cross country and track programs after faculty and student-athletes raised concerns about the team’s divided culture and the alleged behavior of distance coach Patrick Wales-Dinan.
Parker is hopeful, though, that Harvard can become a leader in creating a gender-equitable Athletic Department as long as the assessments of athletics culture, Title IX compliance, and pay equity are transparent and lead to action.
“We believe Harvard should be the standard bearer in what a gender-equitable athletic department looks like,” said Parker. “The results of these audits should be transparent so the Harvard community can work together to achieve the goal of gender equity in the Athletics Department now, before another school year goes forward under the current system.”
The women’s rugby team won the Ivy 7 championship for the second year in a row last weekend.