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Presidential Views on Women, College Sport, and Higher EducationPresidential Views on Women, College Sport, and Higher Education
President Peggy Ryan Williams

Sport and Title IX Symposium
Cleveland, Ohio, March 31, 2007

I want to thank the organizers of the conference for inviting me to take part in this historic event, especially Ellen Staurowsky, who has done a tremendous job of advancing the cause of girls and women in athletics. I also want to recognize and thank the many Ithaca College students who are here, working to make this event a success. We are proud of you at home, and here on the road. I would also like to thank you all for attending the symposium, and I know we all look forward to watching the Final Four women’s match-ups tomorrow.

I received from a faculty member the other day a timely e-mail unrelated to — but relevant to — this event. He wrote that he often refers to his work at IC as “going to school” and that earlier in the week his six-year old daughter asked him who his principal was. He replied “Her name is Peggy Williams,” and his daughter responded, “I’m glad she is a girl.”  Who says that we don’t notice gender in our everyday worlds from an early age? Who says that its presence and/or its imbalance are not relevant and real?

As college president, and as a member of the Presidents Council of NCAA Division III, I am honored to be a part of the important discussions about intercollegiate athletics that are taking place at the national level. As a college president who happens to be a “girl,” I understand the additional role I must play in helping to represent the needs and aspirations of those who were, for too long, considered unable or uninterested in taking part in organized athletics.

My predecessor as president of Ithaca College, the late James J. Whalen, took great pride in helping strengthen our women’s athletics program and in trying to ensure that women at other colleges and universities had the same opportunities. As the cochair of the NCAA Task Force on Gender Equity, he was at the forefront of the national debate about the role of women’s sports. A lot of college administrators, and especially football coaches, felt threatened by the task force’s report, and he took much heat for simply trying to get many leaders in higher education to acknowledge that Title IX was the law of the land and should be obeyed in both letter and spirit.

Today, Ellen asked me to talk with you about my own background, personal and professional, and to share some thoughts on how that background has affected my views on women and leadership.

Athletics played an important role in my own upbringing, and physical activity and fitness remain fun priorities in my life as a middle-aged adult. I feel fortunate to have been exposed to sports and physical activity at an early age, which laid the foundation for subsequent years, recreationally and even professionally.  My parents were very encouraging and supportive, making many opportunities available to me from an early age. I vividly remember the challenge my father had, when I was six, finding a child’s baseball mitt for a left-hander!

I entered the world of athletic competition at the age of six, as a member of the swim team at an athletic club in Montreal. Our home meets were on Friday nights, and I can vividly recall the excitement in the air on those evenings. Freestyle was my stroke, but I occasionally swam medley relays as well. Boys' and girls' teams practiced together and held joint meets.

In high school I played on the school basketball and softball teams, on defense and as shortstop, respectively, and continued to swim for recreation. At our high school, one of the playing fields was flooded in the winter and turned into an ice rink.  Over the lunch period, we played ice hockey.  By now I had also picked up skiing, water-skiing, camping, badminton, squash, and other activities, both indoor and outdoor. I spent my summers in a lakefront community in Vermont, where outdoor activities were my “life.”

I had one other talent that could be considered athletic of sorts. At age 12 I was the girls’ yo-yo champion for the west island of Montreal. However, I did not think that a future career as a professional yo-yo-ist held much promise, unlike some of the other activities I enjoyed, where an Olympic bid might be a possibility, however remote.

As an undergraduate I attended the University of Toronto, where I swam in the intramurals program. Other physical activities remained part of my life.

Now, whenever possible, I carve out time to bike, hike, ski, swim, and sail. I firmly believe that participating in such activities benefits intellectual health as well as physical health and well-being. Even in the midst of a busy week – and when you are a college president there is no other kind of week – I make sure to take time away from my desk and the telephone for exercise. For my husband David and me, the idea of a “relaxing” vacation is one that finds us cycling across Europe or hiking in the eastern Canadian Arctic wilderness.

These interests also give me the opportunity to benefit others. Last summer I participated in a mile swim across Cayuga Lake to raise funds for our local hospice program, and in the fall my husband and I were in a 100-mile bicycle ride around the same lake as part of the AIDS Ride for Life fundraiser. No, those events were not on the same day, but rather several weeks apart. I may be fit, but I do have limits!

Although I am a member of the pre-Title IX generation, I did not suffer personally from its absence. There were no such barriers for me growing up, no sense of “it is not cool for a girl to be an athlete.”  I grew up in Canada, attended all-girls’ schools, belonged to an athletic club, and had numerous opportunities to participate in sports competitively and just for fun. I never knew what cheerleaders were. In my school, girls were the athletes and cheerleaders were not part of our experience. All of my interactions with boys were outside of the school setting and were athletic in nature. 

I knew of no other model of education and of girls’ participation in athletics until I moved to the United States. When I joined the higher education community here in the early 1970s, I learned that many of my female contemporaries had grown up in a very different environment.  I then watched the adoption of Title IX and its subsequent impact on gender in athletics from within the higher education community.

I know that the opportunity to participate in athletics from an early age was important in my development and still contributes to who I am today and how I carry out my duties as a college president. In her presentation earlier today, Sally Rea Ross (Bowling Green University) noted that data from the Women’s Sports Foundation indicate that 80 percent of female executives in Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as “tomboys.” Through athletics, in addition to learning the skills and techniques associated with various sports, I also learned about

  • Discipline
  • Teamwork
  • Competition and how to deal with both victory and defeat
  • Risk taking
  • Achievement
  • Leadership
  • Confidence
  • Stretching to meet a goal
  • And much more

 I also met interesting people along the way and expanded my horizons.

While my athletic background does not match that of our current women student-athletes, I know that their participation teaches them a great deal, and brings enjoyment and excitement to the rest of us in the Ithaca College community.

And now, a little bit about Ithaca College. . . .

Ithaca College has won 15 team national championships, with nearly half of those coming in women’s sports, including field hockey, softball, gymnastics, and twice in both soccer and crew. Of our 22 individual national championships, 14 have come from women student-athletes.

If you will permit me some additional bragging, Ithaca College has had more than 60 scholar-athletes honored nationally as academic all-Americans, with a member of our women’s lacrosse team named in 2001 as the academic all-American of the year. Each year we also have a number of student-athletes and entire teams earning recognition on academic honor rolls for their accomplishments in their respective sport as well as in the classroom.

Our student-athletes cannot accomplish what they do on their own: Just as they are part of a team on the field and on the court, they are part of a larger team that includes all of the coaches and professional staff of our Office of Intercollegiate Athletics. As a Division III institution, we are committed not just to winning championships, but also to the holistic development of our student-athletes. We participate in the NCAA Lifeskills Program, which seeks to develop well-balanced lifestyles for student-athletes and encourages growth in decision-making, planning, and fulfillment of career and life goals.

So here we are today celebrating 35 years of Title IX, and indeed there is much to celebrate. It has taken a lot of pushing, and a lot of pulling, to reach the stage where girls and women are not reflexively considered “unladylike” if they too want to play a game in which they work up a sweat. But there is also much that still needs to be done, the least of which is to ensure that we do not backslide, whether as a result of becoming complacent or from bowing to complaints that we have already gone “too far.”

I applaud the women and men who have played such a large role in the pushing and pulling. I am proud to say they include people like Ithaca College’s Ellen Staurowsky and Jim Whalen. I am sure that the women and men in this room today will do what you can to be faithful to such effort and continue to strive for even greater opportunities for girls and women in the future.

Thank you.