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Carleton’s physical education requirement discourages women from participating in the same courses as men.

Our school requires each student to take four PE courses before graduation. The Physical Education, Athletics and Recreation Department (PEAR) lists its policies for the PE requirement at Carleton online: “Four (4) PE credits may be earned for participation on a club sport team that meets the requirements stipulated by the department … Club sport athletes can only receive one PE credit for each year of participation.” The current policies that I will discuss are written using binary-gender terms. For the purpose of describing my experience as a cisgender woman in the context of these policies, I will write using binary-gender vocabulary. 

Men’s club volleyball, with practices open to all genders, describes its PE credit policy online: “Students interested in playing with the Men’s Volleyball Club may also apply to get PE credit for participating in the team’s winter season.” 

 I’ve attended nearly every practice for the past two years. Last Fall Term, when winter registration began, our coaches — two women from the women’s varsity volleyball team — reminded everyone that they should register for the corresponding PE credit. So, when my registration time opened, I happily enrolled in the “pass”/”no pass” PE credit, thinking I would easily get my four PE credits doing a sport I love with an amazing group of people.

Early January of that Winter Term, our now-graduated coach, Inger Shelton ’22, welcomed everyone to the PE-credited Men’s Volleyball Club.

“Because a women’s varsity team exists on campus and receives PE credit, women unfortunately cannot receive PE credit for this course PE290, but you are still welcome to come to practice.”

Inger politely clarified and referred to Carleton’s policy during the following practice. She reminded us all that the men’s volleyball team had a tournament or competitive team in which only men could play due to league policy. As the collegiate league’s gender policy applies to PEAR’s competition-eligibility policy, every man attending and enrolled in the club volleyball practices could theoretically be promoted to the tournament team and thereby earn PE credit. A woman is not permitted to play competitively and therefore is prohibited from receiving the PE credit. Inger provided an additional complication involving the existence of the women’s varsity volleyball team (active during Fall Term) and a coed course during the Spring Term.

By Spring Term, I realized the convoluted policy wouldn’t disappear and would block me from earning PE credit despite exercising at least three to five times a week. Over the summer, after some deliberation, I wrote Sports Club Director Aaron Chaput with my frustrations and a request for change or exception in policy. He responded just a day later with the following: 

“Part of the foundation of why we have PEAR Department Sport Clubs, and grant them the ability to offer PE credit is the opportunity for students to have the opportunity for competition. With the Men’s Volleyball Club, part of the criteria for earning credit is the ability to be on the competitive roster in the league in which they participate, which is a Men’s collegiate league. As a department, and at a school of only 2,000 students, we try to offer a wide array of offerings within the resources we have available, but by not duplicating sports we already have within our department, and in this case we have a Women’s Varsity volleyball program option which gives PE credit for women.  We do however try to meet the needs of all those interested in volleyball by offering multiple PE Volleyball classes both Fall and Spring terms, and I would encourage you to take one of those classes to earn your PE credit.”

Despite Aaron’s explanation, I didn’t (and still don’t) find any logic in the reasoning. Why is competition so important to earning PE credit here if most other PE courses don’t involve competition? Is winning or losing the definition of accomplishment? Is this situation really considered duplication, and, if so, what is the problem with duplication? If I can never attend those alternative volleyball courses due to a lab (STEM major) or another class (humanities appreciator), how am I supposed to get credit for volleyball? At this point, I was convinced I would have to contact Title IX to have my arguments seriously considered. I didn’t write Aaron back. Instead, I condensed my arguments into another email, this time addressed to a Title IX representative and Registrar’s Office representative. On August 19, I sent the following list of objections in that email. 

  1. The liberal arts education requires that students acquire a variety of skills that will serve them well in their adult life. Part of these skills, as Carleton argues with their curriculum and graduation requirements, is the ability to “make regular activity part of their [students’] lives.” If the primary goal of the PE requirement is to encourage healthy movement and lifestyle, competition and therefore gender identity ought to be irrelevant to credit acquisition. 
  2. If the credit is reliant on competitive eligibility, on what basis are the non-tournament-based PE courses (such as badminton or ballet) awarded credit?
  3. The men’s club team has two types of players: tournament and non-tournament players. Theoretically, male players are eligible for both, although the 12 to 13 core competitive players constituting the tournament team are determined during Fall Term. The remainder of the year, the non-selected members of the club still attend practice and are awarded credit if they are male despite never competing. Within this large club, there is a low likelihood that members not selected for the tournament team based on skill level be promoted to compete. During the previous Winter Term, the only term in which men may be awarded credit for participation, there were at least ten non-tournament players who never competed and earned credit for simply attending the appropriate number of practices. Here, credit based on eligibility to compete is thin and irrational. 
  4. As a female member, I practiced with the club at every opportunity. Although I was not permitted to participate in tournaments due to my gender identity, I nonetheless attended multiple tournaments in support of the tournament players. It is also important to note that several members of the tournament team rarely played in games compared to other tournament players. I find the importance of competitive eligibility here to be exaggerated.
  5. The school additionally argues that female volleyball players may not receive credit due to the existence of other volleyball opportunities: women’s varsity volleyball and PE volleyball courses. To address the first opportunity of participating in varsity volleyball, that requires a particular elevated skill level of players as well as a minimum of 15 hours each week of the season for which the players are awarded credit. The PEAR department states that the school’s athletic programs, including the PE requirement, are “intended to meet a range of individual commitment, interest, and ability.” I am not a student-athlete in that I would prefer to spend more of those hours dedicated to varsity work on academics. I also do not believe that I have the skill level to be a member of the women’s varsity team, but that should be tolerable in accordance with the school’s policy mentioned above. So, the second option would be to enroll in one of the PEAR department’s credited volleyball courses. While that is entirely possible, I believe I have the skill level beyond beginner-intermediate courses but not of a varsity level. Playing with the men’s team exposes me to players of varying skill levels — including my own — and higher, which pushes me to constantly improve (and many of them have become close friends.) The club practices for two hours three days a week. Most other PEAR-accredited courses meet only for around two to three hours each week and do not involve competition. Men’s volleyball provides me with higher levels of physical and social activity than the proposed alternative courses for a female player who does not have the time for varsity athletics.

By September 6, more than two weeks later, neither Title IX nor the Registrar’s Office had replied. Understanding that I sent the previous email during summer break, I decided to follow up closer to the start of the academic year. On September 19, Laura Riehle-Merril, the Title IX Coordinator, replied and apologized for the lack of communication; someone would get back to me soon with a detailed reply. On September 23, I received that reply from Laura. I found her response more digestible, but similar to Aaron’s email, logically flawed. She wrote me this:

“I understand that PEAR already communicated the information below to you, but I want to reiterate the key reasons for this decision. 

Based on the information you provided — that you are a female student who has chosen to participate in the Men’s Volleyball Sport Club team — you are not eligible to earn PE credit for the following reasons:

  • The Men’s Volleyball Sport Club governing body does not allow women to compete in their league. 
  • In accordance with PEAR Department policy, in order to earn PE credit for participating in club sports, a student must be eligible for or actually participate in competition.
  • Because you are ineligible to compete under the rules of the governing body of the Men’s Volleyball Sport Club that you have chosen to participate in, you cannot receive PE credit for this activity.

Your options (as you stated in your email) remain:

  • Receive PE credit by participating in a PE co-ed volleyball class
  • Take any of the other PE classes for PE credit

I support PEAR’s policies for PE credit and their equitable treatment of students in their offerings and policies. The PEAR department is the only entity who can grant PE credit and has policies in place that are supported by the College.”

Despite her sincere apology, I saw no use in replying. From all of these interactions, it appears the greatest obstacle is that participants in the Men’s Volleyball Club must be eligible to compete at that level, and the club league requires that competitors identify as men. Clearly, addressing the league’s gender identification policy is not the root of my problem. Rather, it is that I met Carleton’s goal of exercising regularly, yet I was denied credit for the SAME effort as men. If PEAR eliminated its competition-eligibility policy, the women who put in the same work as men would earn their deserved credit.

If you, the reader, are convinced that only competition merits PE credit, please understand how the men’s club volleyball team has operated for the past two years. Toward the end of the Fall Term, the people who attend the practices are quietly evaluated by captains and coaches, and about fifteen of the most skilled male players are chosen to compete at tournaments. For reference, there are roughly 30-40 people that show up to the Winter Term practices. Understandably, there are men who lack the advanced skills needed to play competitively. The tournament group rarely looks outside their previously drafted members to compete in a tournament. I’ve only seen this happen once: last year, when a non-tournament player attended several tournaments in the spring during the non-PE-credited term because a previous tournament player was on an OCS trip. The other non-tournament men were guaranteed credit despite never having played competitively. Roughly one in ten non-tournament men may be recruited for competition. The remaining nine men will earn PE credit for Winter Term, while the women will not due to their gender in the context of policy. 

I just cannot understand why PEAR would so harshly scrutinize physical education when the ultimate goal is to exercise healthily. Addressing these situations can contribute to a stronger and more cohesive community — something Carleton claims to offer. I wanted to appeal to others before diving into the email rabbit hole again. I don’t know how else to explain the strangeness of this situation. If PEAR changed their policy of requiring competition, assuming it wouldn’t require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, PE credit would be far more attainable for busy women such as myself. I have no doubt that Carleton would diversify their physical education program if they extended effort to altering policy. 

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