Title IX 40 for 40: Dr. Alice P. Gast
Dr. Alice P. Gast has been the President of
Lehigh University since 2006, after serving as the vice president
for research and associate provost at the M.I.T. Prior to that, Dr.
Gast spent 16 years as a professor of chemical engineering at
Stanford University and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation
Laboratory. Dr. Gast graduated from Southern California in 1980
with a degree in chemical engineering and then earned her master's
and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Princeton in 1981 and
How did Title IX help to change the perception of women in athletics?
Dr. Gast: I believe that Title IX, and the college and university responses to it, have helped make women athletes respected and valued in our society -- and have helped women to see themselves that way. When I was a track athlete, prior to the effects of Title IX, women’s sports were limited and undervalued. We had a very strong AAU girls and women’s track community in the 1970’s in Southern California but few high schools and colleges had teams at that time. Women’s athletics – track, swimming, volleyball, fencing, gymnastics, etc., were really only visible every four years during the Olympics. Now the broader community follows women and men in athletic competitions throughout the year and there are heroes and heroines, revered for their courage, their accomplishments and their values.
Women also have better perceptions of themselves through the successful athletes they celebrate as peers and role models. Women now have the opportunity to be athletes in high schools and colleges, where they learn the value of mental toughness, discipline, self-confidence and hard work. They carry these qualities throughout their lives, well beyond their athletic careers.
We are all proud of the achievements of the women athletes at Lehigh University. Our 1992 women’s cross country team was the first team at Lehigh to win a league championship. Lehigh women softball players have garnered the most Patriot League championships and NCAA playoff berths of any team on our campus and our women athletes are highly respected and admired on campus. It is wonderful to attend a women’s athletic event and see the support they get from our male athletes as well as our faculty, staff and students.
What has Title IX done for women outside of the sports
Dr. Gast: Enhancing resources and support of women’s collegiate athletics has also improved the gender balance and academic profile of universities. Lehigh University became a coeducational university in 1971, and today we have a vibrant student body where women assume leadership roles across the campus. Women students create and lead exceptional academic and service initiatives. While the Lehigh University student body is nearly 50:50 female/male, in Lehigh’s engineering college, 26 percent of the undergraduates are women, above the national average 18.6 percent. We have more work to do to improve these numbers, but the expectation at Lehigh is that women are leaders, that women excel in all fields and that women are successes as students, faculty and alumni.
This spirit of excellence is very visible on Lehigh’s athletic fields; it is just as vibrant in the classrooms, stages, studios, laboratories and workshops. In my time at Lehigh, women have presided over our Student Senate, Student-Athlete Council, and other major student organizations more often than men, and several women student-athletes have been honored as the top undergraduate leaders on our campus. Women excel in ways I do not believe possible if Title IX had not set the tone and expectation across campus.
Who was an influential woman in athletics to you and why?
Dr. Gast: When I began running at the age of 12, I had the privilege of being a teammate of Mary Decker’s on the Long Beach Comets. She was a force as a very young girl and she showed her teammates the power of determination and hard work. She inspired the world as a teenager, beating Russian and East German runners many years her senior. It was a time when our country was immersed in a cold war and our citizens celebrated a young school girl who out-ran Eastern Bloc full-time athletes. She brought a spotlight to women in the United States, and many influential women have followed her footsteps. Mary inspired young women to dream and to work hard to fulfill their dreams.
Mary Decker’s success and the successes of our AAU team were also a testament to the dedicated and generous coaches who volunteered their time to meet with us every afternoon at 4PM and to drive us all over the Southwest for meets. The coaches’ patient support of all of the runners, from talents like Mary to many striving for improvement, provided a life lesson in the influence one person can have on another. I am sure that they changed many lives for the better, including mine.
Who is someone you view as a pioneer in women's athletics and why?
Dr. Gast: I have always viewed Billie Jean King as a pioneer in women’s athletics because of her great visibility as a superb athlete and a tough competitor. She changed the image of women athletes. Billie Jean represented a new level of athleticism and she was renowned for her focus, drive, determination and perfection of her sport. She was one of the few women a young athlete could watch on TV in the 1970’s. Watching somebody as talented as Billie Jean was a great inspiration. Today there are many “Billie Jean Kings” in all kinds of sports and women in all kinds of leadership positions to inspire the next generation.