Celene Reynolds Awarded the 21st Century Prize

Department News
Student Awards and Recognition
May 6, 2020

Celene Reynolds

Presidential Post-doctoral Fellow, Cornell University.

From Unequal Play to Unwanted Contact: Title IX in American Universities, 1972-2016

(Dissertation Committee: Julia Adams (Chair); Rene Almeling; Emily Erikson)

The committee recognizes Celene Reynolds’s distinguished dissertation, “From Unequal Play to Unwanted Contact: Title IX in American Universities, 1972-2016,” with the department’s 2020 21st Century Prize.

Reynold’s superb thesis focuses on the puzzle of how and why the application of this far-reaching law, the letter of which has not changed since the 1970s, expanded from mandating gender equity in college sports to regulating sexuality on campus. Reynolds deals with both the institutional dynamics–the intersection of the universities, courts, and the U.S. governments Office for Civil Rights–and the interactions among the actors who shaped the emergent change. She argues, first, that the developing relationships between people protected by a law and lawyers advocating on their behalf transformed Title IX, and therefore the American educational system, gender relations, and the popular understanding of the extension of political rights-claims. With respect to the bottom-up application of anti-discrimination law in particular, the initial legal change emerged from the crucible of local social relations. Multiple interacting processes of diffusion were then set in train, channeling the spread of sexual harassment complaints and their mode of address.

Reynolds skillfully uses multiple innovative methods to tell the history of Title IX in a completely new way. She (1) assembled a unique data set (numbering over 10,000 records) on the history of post-secondary school Title IX complaints filed from 1994 to 2014, as well as all lawsuits filed under Title IX ; (2) conducted two detailed case studies of university organizational struggles over the application of the law: the originating university, Yale, and the first instance of diffusion, University of California-Berkeley, incorporating archival research and interviews with historic innovators; and, (3) she analyzed the further flow of Title IX complaints via targeted schools aspirational reference groups, operationalized as Twitter ties among schools. She is the first to document Title IX’s inception and initial uses, as well as to empirically trace how it is used and how it has spread. Breaking new ground empirically, into the changing educational landscape of the university and its struggles with sexual harassment, and theoretically, into the use and transformation of law over time, this dissertation also speaks directly to pressing policy questions regarding Title IX, the legal and political struggle over equal opportunity in America, and the future shape of the university system.

Congratulations, Celene!