While the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX statute has been around since 1972, there’s renewed societal focus on issues related to sexual assault and discrimination – and evolving guidance at the federal level when it comes to addressing them.
“Colleges are kind of on edge right now with respect to these issues,” Chronicle of Higher Education senior reporter Sarah Brown said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.
She joined host Don Marsh and two additional guests for a discussion following up on a message sent last week by University of Missouri System President Mun Choi to all four campus communities across the state. In it, Choi reaffirmed a “commitment to institutional accountability, transparency and the protection of our students, employees, patients and visitors.”
“The issues of sexual assault, harassment, bullying, discrimination and workplace misconduct are at the top of our collective consciousness,” Choi’s email read in part, “and academic institutions have often minimized such occurrences in an attempt to protect the university’s reputation … We will never place concerns for our reputation above the welfare of the people we serve, and we will not tolerate misconduct.”
Dana Beteet Daniels, Title IX coordinator and chief equity officer for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that the biggest change on UMSL’s campus of late is strengthening programs aimed at encouraging reporting of Title IX-related incidents by students, faculty and staff.
“We’re promoting more of a learning environment to ensure that our students – or everyone, any visitor to the campus – is aware [of] who to go to, who to speak with,” Daniels said, “with regard to any impropriety regarding sexual harassment or sexual assault on our campus.”
In Brown’s view, two key factors are driving the focus on this topic among university officials in Missouri and around the country – the first involving a decades-long issue at Michigan State University that only recently came to light.
“They’ve had a huge sexual abuse scandal with Larry Nassar, a former sports doctor who abused hundreds of victims under the guise of giving them medical treatment,” Brown said. “There’s also the #MeToo movement, which has not spared higher ed. There are an increasing number of people coming forward about, for example, star professors who have harassed them in some way.”
Nicole Gorovsky, a local attorney and graduate of Washington University School of Law who advocates for victims of sexual abuse, said she empathizes with institutions as far as the complexity and difficulty of the tasks at hand – but also thinks they need to do better.
“They’ve had a lot of time to implement those policies and procedures, and so universities at this point should be getting the training and guidance that they need in order to do this,” Gorovsky said. “Their Title IX investigators and coordinators should know exactly how to do a complete investigation at this point in time and weigh that evidence.”
All three guests touched on the evolving situation at the federal level with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announcing new guidance on Title IX last September.
Brown said colleges and universities were under more pressure to take sexual assault and harassment more seriously under President Obama’s administration.
“A lot of [university] officials have been telling me they want more flexibility with respect to handling sexual assault and harassment on their campus – you know, what works for the University of Missouri-St. Louis might not work for a nearby community college, might not work for Mizzou, might not work for Harvard,” Brown said.
Gorovsky said that desire for flexibility on the part of institutions “scares the heck” out of her.
“When you give them flexibility, what you’re doing is you’re giving them carte blanche to apply it in any way they want,” she said. “And what we don’t want is for a student at the Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville who is sexually assaulted to be having an entirely different experience than someone who is sexually assaulted at Washington University.
“You want a person who is sexually assaulted and reports their rape to know what they’re in for – to know what is going to happen, to have some guidance that there are standards here and that they can rest assured that the process will be one that is regulated.”
Daniels said she is “comfortable with the way things were” under the 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” issued under Obama with regard to handling such cases.
“I do agree that we need to have some standards and some form of agreement across the board between the institutions,” she said. “I do feel that at the University of Missouri that we have been fair. We give both parties the opportunity to provide their version, information, witnesses – we try very hard not to just accept one story without speaking to the other party.”
She added that she “understand[s] that Betsy DeVos was concerned that there are some institutions that cater more to the victim and that the responding party is not being heard. I do not think that that is fair, but I think that we have to look at the situation as a whole to give both parties an opportunity to speak.”
Brown said fairness is “something DeVos is very adamant about” and also acknowledged the concern that Devos is now “sort of catering to the concerns of accused students and not thinking as much about the people who are victims of traumatic experiences.”
When Marsh asked Brown about why the subject seems to be rather confusing, the reporter noted that “the cases themselves are often incredibly confusing to parse through” because of things like the very nature of a college campus as well as academic structures like tenure.
“That adds a whole ’nother element to the process of dealing with these cases,” Brown said. “It can cause them to drag on for a long time. And in the meantime, think about, say, a graduate student who has to work with a particular professor who is her mentor.
“This professor has harassed her, and she just wants to be able to write her thesis, complete her degree, get out of there. And she doesn’t feel that she can do that. So colleges are in a tough spot dealing with these cases.”
Producer's note: The University of Missouri System Board of Curators holds the license to St. Louis Public Radio. The station is editorially independent.
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