The Grove City College Case: One Small but Mighty College vs. Federal Domination
By Dr. John Sparks
In 1976, Grove City College, a Christian college of arts, letters, and sciences situated in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, received what seemed to be a misdirected notification. The document came from the federal government’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and was titled an “Assurance of Compliance with Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972." HEW sought a signature from the college’s then-president, Charles MacKenzie, promising that Grove City College was in compliance with the regulations of Title IX, the portion of federal law that forbade discrimination on the basis of sex by schools receiving federal monies.
President MacKenzie frequently told students that there were four things seriously wrong with the request that HEW had made. First, Grove City College had been coeducational since its beginnings in 1869. Women students made up roughly half the current enrollment. No discrimination based upon sex was being practiced. Secondly, the college had refused to seek federal grants, unlike so many other colleges and universities, in order to protect its independence. Consequently, it did not receive direct funding from the federal government. The clearly enunciated position was that private education ought to be financed with the help of private scholarships and loan sources as well as the matriculating students’ resources and those of their parents. In order to make that possible the college sought to keep its charges as low as possible by eschewing debt and operating within reasonable budgets. A few Grove City College students did receive monies from federal programs but the college was not involved in the administration of these programs. Thirdly, though it agreed with and practiced non-discrimination in admissions and hiring, and thus had no quarrel with Title IX, it wished to follow that policy based upon its own institutional convictions and not because a federal bureaucracy was insisting that it do so. Finally, as MacKenzie pointed out, the "Assurance” document not only referred to complying with current regulations but with any that would be promulgated in the future, certainly a “blank check” which the college refused to write.
HEW, not receiving a signed assurance, began compliance proceedings before an official known as an administrative law judge. Though the judge stated that there was “not the slightest hint of any failure [by the college] to comply with Title IX,” he nevertheless ruled that the secretary of HEW, Joseph Califano, had a right to insist upon a signed assurance form, and absent such an assent, federal funds to the few students receiving them would be ended.
In November 1978, Grove City College filed suit in Federal District Court in Pittsburgh, joined by four GCC students who were among those who did receive Federal Basic Education Opportunity Grants (BEOG) or Guaranteed Student Loans (GSL). Here before Federal District Judge Paul A. Simmons, the college was partially successful in several regards. Simmons ruled that the GSLs — private loans guaranteed by the federal government — could not be terminated by HEW because they were exempted by statute. In addition, he said the compliance form was developed under a portion of the regulations that dealt with discrimination in employment and, therefore, had nothing to do with educational programs.
Further, Judge Simmons said that the failure to sign the assurance was not enough to justify termination of student federal financial aid because there had been no finding of actual Title IX discrimination. Judge Simmons viewed the BEOG grants, though received indirectly, as making the college into a “recipient.” He ruled that termination of the grants without a hearing for all students who would be adversely affected would violate Fifth Amendment due process requirements.
The case went from there to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against the college, saying it was receiving federal financial assistance and the grants to students could be cut off without an actual showing of discrimination. The court even went so far as to say that despite the minimal nature of the grants Grove City College students received, the college in its entirety was subject to HEW’s regulations.
The college then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The majority of the High Court, with Justice Byron White writing, essentially stood with the Third Circuit, saying that the college’s contention that it was not a recipient of federal funds because it received federal monies only through students and parents, and not directly, was unsupportable given congressional intent and administrative practice. However, the majority rejected the Third Circuit’s extension of HEW regulation to the whole of the institution, instead maintaining that Title IX rules and regulations covered only the college’s financial aid program, where the monies touched college operations, thus following the so-called “program specific” language of Title IX. According to Justice White, the college did have a remaining option: It could choose to terminate participation in federal aid programs by refusing federal monies tendered by students and parents.
That is precisely what Grove City College did, immediately withdrawing from the Pell Grant Program and (later, in 1996) from the Stafford Federal Loan Program. It is worthy of note that Justice Lewis Powell, in a concurring opinion joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, wrote that though he “reluctantly” supported the High Court’s decision, he saw the whole matter as “an unedifying example of overzealousness on the part of the Federal Government.” Powell continued calling Grove City College “unique among colleges in our country” and apart from “indirect assistance … following an unbending policy of refusing all forms of government assistance, whether federal, state or local.” Powell said further: “as this case well illustrates — that with acceptance of such assistance one surrenders a certain measure of the freedom that Americans always have cherished.”
To make the matter clear, Powell stated: “The undisputed fact is that Grove City does not discriminate — and so far as the record in this case shows — never has discriminated against anyone on account of sex, race, or national origin. This case has nothing whatever to do with discrimination past or present." He ended with a line that rings loudly for all to hear: "The Department [HEW] has prevailed, having taken this small independent college, which it acknowledges has engaged in no discrimination whatever, through six years of litigation with the full weight of the federal government opposing it. I cannot believe that the Department will rejoice in its ‘victory.’”
Though the college remained free by eschewing federal aid and instead seeking and finding private funds for its students, the liberal Left wanted total regulation. It was not satisfied with the Court’s limited application of HEW regulations to only portions of a school’s operation. Thus began Part II — the story of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, dubbed, improperly, the “Grove City Bill,” and a courageous president’s fight to maintain educational liberty.
Editor’s note: Watch for our coming publication of “Part II,” with Dr. John Sparks’ further exploration of this important topic and the “Grove City Bill.”
Dr. John A. Sparks is the retired dean of Arts & Letters at Grove City College and a fellow for The Center for Vision & Values. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and a member of the State Bar of Pennsylvania. He is a frequent contributor of articles based upon U.S. Supreme Court developments.