Among the legal questions still swirling around Penn State, one has drawn little attention but could pose a threat to the university: Did the school's handling of sex abuse allegations against assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky violate the federal Title IX gender discrimination law?
Title IX could be in play because the 40-year-old law — most commonly associated with access for girls and women to sports teams — has become the main framework governing how colleges and universities must respond to reports of sexual assault and ensure a safe learning environment for students.
As Penn State tries to move past the scandal after Sandusky's trial, the devastating Freeh Report and unprecedented NCAA penalties — the football team opens play Saturday — Title IX is potentially more than a legal afterthought. The reason: Not only have Title IX lawsuits produced some of the most expensive judgments against universities in recent years, but the law allows for the possibility — however unlikely — that a university's access to all federal dollars could be cut off.
In reality, experts say, it's unimaginable the feds would impose what some call the "academic death penalty" available under Title IX to shut down research and cripple a university that educates and employs tens of thousands of people — in an election-year battleground state, no less — who had no involvement with the scandal. Nor is Penn State's accreditation, also required for receiving federal funds, considered in jeopardy despite a recent warning from its accrediting agency.