The Truth About Grove City College v. Bell

40 years ago, Grove City College was offered a choice between compliance and independence. It made the right choice.

By Jacob Feiser


Before coming to Grove City College, I had heard that the school did not take any federal loans. Yet I never understood exactly why Grove City College doesn’t accept federal funding. It is a common question from those familiar with the school, from prospective students to graduates alike. But the reasoning often given – Grove City College seeks to maintain its independence – hides a much larger story.


The Resistance

Beginning in the 1970s, Congress introduced legislation attempting to prevent sex discrimination in higher education. If a university received federal assistance, it needed to comply with Title IX protections. Compliance would mean offering the government blank-check assurance of compliance with existing, and future, regulations.

When then-President Dr. MacKenzie refused to sign off on this degree of regulation, the Carter administration revoked funding for students attending Grove City College. At the time, the college accepted BEOG funds (a predecessor to modern Pell grants) from students. These students, affected by the government’s revocation of their grant money, sued, and Grove City College v. Bell was born. Litigation began when President McNulty (’80) was a student, and he recalled the excitement on campus when the college won at the district level. “The judge was a Democrat appointee, but he found that there was no history of discrimination at Grove City,” said McNulty. “The college made sure to point that out in all future litigation.”

On appeal to the Third Circuit, the district’s decision was reversed, and so Grove City College appealed its suit against the Department of Education to the Supreme Court. David M. Lascell served as First Chair at oral arguments. He argued that since GCC was not the direct recipient of government funds, it should not be entangled with government oversight.


The Ruling

40 years ago, on February 28, 1984, the Court handed down a majority opinion by Justice Byron White, a Court centrist (for the time) and Kennedy appointee. The Justices ruled that there was no “substantive difference” between indirect and direct federal assistance. The ruling brushed aside one of Grove City’s core contentions—Title IX regulations were triggered by BEOGs.

Yet the majority also found that these regulations could affect only the specific program receiving the funds. For Grove City, that meant the financial aid office, which was staffed by two women, had to comply with Title IX regulations. Because of the staffing composition, Grove City was practically unaffected by the decision. But the Court also ruled that these regulations did not interfere with the students’ or Grove City’s First Amendment rights.


The Argument

 The ruling featured a host of concurring and dissenting opinions. Justice Powell, joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justice O’Connor, expressed reluctance with the decision. He viewed the case as an “unedifying example of overzealousness on the part of the Federal Government.” Powell even noted how special Grove City College is, calling it “unique among colleges.” He praised it for its twin missions of faith and freedom. Quoting the first judge to hear the case, Powell agreed that “[i]t should also be noted that there was not the slightest hint of any failure to comply with Title IX save the refusal to submit an executed assurance of compliance with Title IX. This refusal is obviously a matter of conscience and belief.”

The laud towards Grove City notwithstanding, these Justices felt compelled by judicial modesty and obligation to follow the text of Title IX. The regulations by the Department of Education bound their hands to agree with Justice White.

Despite their agreement with the majority, these three Justices took the opportunity to criticize the government for heavy-handed treatment: “Only after Grove City had brought its case before this Court did the Department retreat to its present position that Title IX applies only to Grove City’s financial aid office. On this narrow theory, the Department 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.’”


The Government vs. Grove City

Justice John Paul Stevens, known in later years as the Court’s most liberal Justice, also offered a concurrence in part and result, saying that Justice White’s majority opinion was not factually based, and therefore only part of the opinion could be considered valid. He wanted a thorough fact-finding investigation conducted by the government, and only then could the Court consider whether just the financial aid office was affected – the implication being that Justice Stevens wanted to expand government overreach over the whole college, but could not find textual or regulatory warrant to justify such a decision.

Justices Brennan and Thurgood Marshall were far more brazen in their contempt for Grove City College. Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Brennan argued that the “Court completely disregards the broad remedial purposes of Title IX.” Laboring the legislative history and arguing that Congressional intent would subject the whole college to government scrutiny, Brennan contended that the alternative would allow Grove City to “free[ly]…segregate male and female students in classes.” Both saw the claims of faith and freedom as a threat to anti-discrimination. Brennan and Marshall demanded that the federal government be able to further regulate the college. Their voices would not find sympathy in the Court.

The decision appeared to be a win for the college. Many people called President MacKenzie and congratulated him for the win. MacKenzie, however, knew that the college had lost. He and Albert Hopeman, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees who had personally paid for all litigation expenses in the suit, agreed that they would be withdrawing the institution from the now-Pell-grant system.


A Principled Legacy

“People appreciated that we stood up for what we believed. Even though the consequences were severe, we did the right thing,” said Dr. James Bibza, the only current faculty who was teaching during the litigation.

Three years after the decision, Congress passed legislation over Reagan’s veto. This legislation required any recipient of federal monies to comply with federal regulations in all areas. In 1996, under President Dr. John Moore, Grove City withdrew from the Stafford Loan program. The decision secured the college’s future of financial and missional independence from the federal government.

When asked why Grove City is celebrating the 40th anniversary of a case it technically lost, President McNulty said, “Bell has been a blessing because it put GCC in a position where it had to be conscious about how it uses its finances.” Rather than raise its costs and depend on federal subsidies, Grove City chose to protect its mission of Christ-centered education and freedom. The anniversary of Grove City College v. Bell allows us to celebrate independence over control and stewardship over waste and excess.


About the Author

Jacob S. Feiser is a research fellow for the Institute for Faith & Freedom. He is a senior political science major with minors in Biblical and religious studies, economics, and history from Havertown, PA. On campus, Jacob is the executive vice president of academic affairs for the Student Government Association. He is the executive content editor for the Grove City College Journal of Law and Public Policy. Further, he is a ranking member of the Student-Faculty Review Committee. He also competes for Grove City College on the Classical Fencing team.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone. They do not necessarily reflect those of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.