Responding to the Victim Rights Law Center’s Report on Wesleyan’s Title IX Policies

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[Updated, 4/2/17, 10:34PM] The post was updated to correct an error in authorship. This post was written by kitab and edited by wilk.

This February, the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) visited Wesleyan to assess our Title IX policies and procedures. Students were notified of their consultation in an all-campus email sent out by Antonio Farias on January 31st. There were three primary goals of the consultation, according to this email:

VRLC are charged with gathering information about the strengths and weaknesses of Wesleyan’s response to reports of sexual and gender-based misconduct, particularly:

  • The clarity of resources for students, faculty, and staff;
  • The accessibility of the process to all students, faculty, and staff, including underrepresented minorities, first-gen, low-income, and LGBTQ populations;
  • The collaboration between the Title IX Office and other first responders.

Their 22-page final report was released on March 23 and emailed out in a classic Roth “Campus Update” this Wednesday. See after the jump for a summary of the report and some commentary.

Background for VRLC’s Title IX Consultation

VRLC's logo

VRLC’s logo

The report begins with some background about VRLC and its visit to Wesleyan. They visited at Wesleyan’s request, in order to “gather information about the strengths and weaknesses of Wesleyan’s response to reports of sexual and gender-based misconduct.” They paid particular attention to the clarity of resources and accessibility of the process to all students, faculty, and staff, including marginalized groups. They also assessed the collaboration between the Office for Equity and Inclusion and “other first responders.”

In the report, VRLC notes that Wes requested the visit “to gather an objective perspective that could facilitate real change on campus.” Though the report focuses on recommendations for improvement, they see “many positive and promising practices at Wesleyan,” namely:

  • Strong community partnerships (with the CT State’s Attorney, Middletown Police Department, Women and Families Center, and CT Alliance to End Sexual Violence);
  • Strong peer support, meaning that survivors are largely supported and believed by their peers;
  • Committed and engaged faculty, willing to cooperate with Title IX administrators; and
  • An inclusive community that “collectively recognized that the impact these types of incidents have on a person are shaped by that individual’s experiences and identities.”

As a final caveat, the report suggests that lack of positive feedback about the adjudication process is not unique to Wes, and that fair, transparent processes afford individuals the ability to remain anonymous and, become merely one part of a person’s time at Wesleyan, rather than a defining factor. People who have positive experiences, it is implied, may not be vocal about those experiences. They urge us to keep this in mind as we read through the report, as they apparently did during the review of the school.

The VRLC’s recommendations aim to address three themes they identified in the feedback they got from Wesleyan students, faculty, and staff:

  • A sense of mistrust among community members,
  • A lack of transparency and/or communication about the reporting process and outcomes, and
  • A need for additional or different training and education.
A poster circulated in the wake of the Boston Globe article on Scott Backer's firing.

A poster circulated in the wake of the Boston Globe article on Scott Backer’s firing.

Much of this year’s uproar about administrative transparency in general and Title IX protocol in particular was in response to the firing of Scott Backer. The report acknowledges that many community members pointed to “two specific incidents during the fall 2016 semester” leading to the current campus climate but declines to review specific cases. (These cases, we speculate, are the circumstances surrounding Scott Backer’s firing and a cluster of incidents later in the semester having to do with student ResLife workers and the outing of perpetrators, which led to some student activists facing disciplinary action for “retaliation.” We did not report on the latter incident.) Mistrust among the community (specifically of the administration, I would say) predated last fall and, “in many ways has historically been part of the culture of the Wesleyan community.” The report, therefore, is not meant as a response to any specific cases or incidents.

Changes to the Office of Equity and Inclusion

EquityInclusionThe first set of recommendations center around the Office for Equity and Inclusion, which is generally mistrusted by students. Specific individuals were named by people the VRLC talked to–some of whom aren’t, technically, part of the OEI, but are involved in implementing the adjudication process. However, many members of the Wesleyan community, they reported, see problems as systemic, and therefore not able to be solved merely by replacing specific individuals. But it’s important to remember that this report isn’t about any specific incidents.

People are also super confused about the OEI: “not a single student knew where on campus OEI is located.” It is presumably located in North College, where Antonio Farias and Debbie Colucci’s offices are. Most people don’t know who works in the office or who sexual misconduct can be reported to, other than Alysha Warren. The website, as we have noted in the past, is “confusing and incomplete.”

The first official recommendation is to separate the role of Title IX coordinator from the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion.

Antonio Farias

Antonio Farias

Right now, Antonio Farias holds both roles, while Debbie Colucci is the Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Equity Compliance Director. They suggest that Debbie be considered for the role of coordinator, in which she “should be empowered to oversee policy and process changes (with the requisite community and committee input), continue to monitor compliance with relevant federal and state laws, supervise investigations, and be the primary person to meet with community members individually and collectively about sexual and gender-based misconduct.” Farias, they quite nicely point out, is a direct source of student mistrust, and isn’t directly involved with Title IX process and policy anyway. Debbie, on the other hand, is well-respected, already basically does the coordinator job, but is understood as “‘having no power’ and therefore unable to create change or uphold the integrity of the process.”

Debbie Colucci

Debbie Colucci

On some level, this makes sense: Farias has very few fans and Debbie already does most of this work anyway. When I interviewed both of them about the Title IX process towards the end of last semester, Debbie walked me through the investigation and adjudication process, while Farias spoke in broad strokes about change, bureaucracy, and managing student activism. I’m skeptical whether this promotion would improve Debbie’s ability to make change, however. For those in the “Fire Farias” camp, it’s worth noting that the recommendation does not change his position as VP of Equity and Inclusion and the Title IX coordinator would still report to him.

Recommendations for Title IX Trainings and Resources

The next few recommendations have to do with trainings and resources:

  • Create or modify trainings to clarify what behaviors constitute a “reportable violation” and the subsequent steps taken by OEI upon receiving a report.
  • OEI must continue to train students on the investigation and adjudication process.
  • Utilize campus and community resources through “Don’t Cancel That Class” or other initiatives to expand awareness to students.

These recommendations seem pretty routine. People need to be better informed about what should be reported and how the reporting process works, particularly since reports “are chilled” (their term) by the perception that reporting has negative ramifications for the reporter or the survivor.

“Don’t Cancel That Class” is an initiative by which professors, rather than cancelling class, can have the administration bring in a speaker “on a variety of topics such as healthy consent, interpersonal violence, safe space training for LGBTQ communities.” Such an initiative would, I suspect, be wildly unpopular. I’m also bemused by the phrase, “safe space training for LGBTQ communities,” which risks implying that LGBTQ communities, unlike others, need training to foster safe spaces? As a friend put it: “so many buzzwords, so little time.”

Campus and Community Resources

The next set of recommendations falls under the heading of Campus and Community Resources. They are:

  • Consider adding an advocate in order to separate Alysha Warren’s multiple roles.
  • Specialized training on Title IX accommodation and interim remedial measure for the class deans.
Alysha Warren

Alysha Warren

Basically, the report recognizes how many roles Alysha Warren plays and suggests that Wesleyan get a specific advocate, who would help students understand their options following a crisis. The advocate would have confidential status and help students meet with administrators and request accommodations or support. The advocate role could be housed in WesWell and also create educational programming around sexual and gender-based misconduct.

They also suggest that Wesleyan should clarify the roles that deans play and better train them to do said roles, which might include supporting both reporting and accused students, and receiving and assessing accommodations requests.

Title IX Committees

The VRLC makes two recommendations about the Title IX committees, which are “a commendable step towards creating transparency” but whose scope and purview are unclear. They suggest that Wesleyan review and update the role of each Title IX committee, and strategize with Student Advisory Committee to determine ways to utilize this group. Most of the Title IX Committees offer feedback and recommendations on Title IX policy. The VRLC isn’t very specific about what else committees should do, but suggest reviewing and offering feedback on resources and materials. They also suggest that student members of the Athletics Title IX Committee serve on the Student Advisory Committee as well, to overcome barriers between athletes and other students.

The report notes that the “involvement and feedback from such a significant number of community members is unusual and Wesleyan should capitalize on it.” This set of recommendations makes me nervous, as Wesleyan already often “capitalizes” on student efforts, and is constantly soliciting student input to solve problems. While it’s important to have ways for student voices to be hear by administrators, I think we should be critical of how the administration benefits from recommendations that focus on how voluntary committees can “contribute more effectively.”

The next recommendation is basically to improve the entire “One Policy” on discriminatory misconduct and sexual harassment, including creating additional sub-headings, improving the intimate partner violence sections and the romantic relationships section, and including a list of other resources. Given that all the policies are confusing and convoluted, this seems like the most obvious, and hopefully most easily accomplished step to take.

The next two sections have to do with the investigation and adjudication processes for students and faculty respectively.

Investigation and Adjudication Process for Students

For students, they stress the importance of consolidating the information and clearly outlining the process for complaints against students, faculty, or staff on the Title IX webpage. They mention how convoluted the Student Handbook and various resources are, as many students have already mentioned. The appeals process also needs to be clearly defined with reference to all possible levels of adjudication. They recommend that Wes create a committee to explore Restorative Justice options, including principles, impact on student and/or staff/faculty cases, and the necessary training needed. They stress that this would be in addition to the current resolution process, rather than replace it. The last, slightly redundant, recommendation in this section is to create a resource for students that outlines entire investigation and adjudication process, perhaps a flowchart.

The investigation phase of the adjudication process seems to be the part of the process with the least criticism from students thus far. The only recommendation of the VRLC for this phase is that interviews be conducted in a neutral space, not the Office of Public Safety, and not only at the interviewee’s request.

There were a few recommendations about the administrative hearing panels, namely that the role of the panels be clearly articulated and the process updated to be consistent, and that the panelists should be trained consistently and have ongoing meetings and trainings. Though the panels are supposedly deliberative, not fact-finding, as it currently stands, students have to repeatedly explain their experiences. The VRLC suggests that Wesleyan decide what role the panels should play and train panelists accordingly.

Barriers to Faculty Reporting of Sexual Misconduct

The report lists various barriers to faculty reporting.  Very few incidents are currently reported, which faculty tend to attribute to a lack of trust about how reports will be handled, rather than a lack of incidents to report. Barriers include fear of retaliation or negative repercussions on one’s career, especially for junior faculty; lack of confidential people to explore options with; and lack of clear information about the adjudication process. The VRLC gave the following recommendations to address some of these issues:

  • Hire an ombudsperson or identify some other confidential resource for faculty and staff.
  • Review and update the procedures for complaints against faculty.
  • Consider retaining external investigators for complaints against faculty.
  • Develop ongoing training opportunities for faculty.

 Most of these recommendations seek to address conflicts of interest, especially given Wesleyan’s small size. As the report points out, even having external investigators and confidential resources is only a first step, and the adjudication process would still be implemented by Wesleyan staff or faculty.

It is important to think about these recommendations within the context of a letter signed by 34 members of the faculty last semester calling for independent review in harassment cases involving faculty members. In this letter, a position of no confidence was taken with respect to current administrative processes. From the letter:

We have grave concerns about the gap between what the University promises to do and what it actually does in cases of harassment and retaliation. Were one of us to be sexually harassed tomorrow, we would have no confidence in the institutional structures that are in place to uphold and adhere to the law. In the case of a complaint against an esteemed colleague, we believe that the complainant would be at considerable risk of being silenced, blamed, defamed, and isolated. Treatment of a faculty member who makes a complaint depends far too much on factors outside their control. Specifically, the likelihood that contingencies such as one’s institutional location, position, and social and professional networks may influence the handling of the case undermines the capacity of the current system to provide justice.

It remains unclear how the administration will address the possibility of independent review.

On Student Activism

Poster from students occupation of Roth's address to parents at October Admissions Open House. In partial response to Backer news.

Poster from students occupation of Roth’s address to parents at October Admissions Open House. In partial response to Backer news.

The final section of the report is on student activism, and suggests that Wesleyan create support mechanisms for student activists that will allow them to continue to create change, while also protecting the rights of their peers. “Many Wesleyan students, including those who identify as activists,” the report notes, “feel betrayed and discouraged by recent events and cases. This has resulted in a series of events and actions that, while well-intentioned, can be harmful to students, specifically victims of sexual and interpersonal violence.” They reiterate the need for an advocate who could support organizing efforts, and “collaborate to create constructive change on campus in thoughtful ways.” They also suggest that students use Know Your IX’s Campus Organizing Toolkit.

Final Thoughts

It is, of course, important that we all be aware and intentional about the effects our actions have on other students, and do our best to create a community of care. This kind of rhetoric echoes what I’ve heard from both Debbie Colucci and Antonio Farias: framing student activists as well-meaning but misguided, at risk of hurting fellow students.

The suggestion is that students work better with the administration, be nicer, use a toolkit made by people with more effective strategies. To me, this kind of recommendation indicates a failure to take at least some students seriously, as well as fundamental ideological differences. Many of the student activists I know have very little faith in administrative solutions; if they are interested in restorative justice models, it’s usually not as a supplement to official processes. These “support mechanisms” for student activists seem designed to suppress actions that the administration doesn’t want, in favor of more acceptable forms of activism in line with Wesleyan’s image.

Overall, I think the VRLC’s recommendations are relatively good. Certainly, our investigation and adjudication processes should be more clearly defined and that information should be accessible. People should be better trained to do their jobs within the system. Still, reports like this are more or less in keeping with standard administrative lines on these issues: more transparency, more input, better organization. The administration tends to pat itself on the back for willingness to change, before soliciting help from student and faculty committees to enact that change.

Again, you can read the full report here and draw your own conclusions, if you wish.

  • everything is meaningless

    Let’s be very clear about something: As currently constituted, Wesleyan’s administration (excluding perhaps a few individuals) will *always* prioritize their own interests above their students’ welfare.

    Also, this report should taken with an enormous grain of salt. It isn’t in VRLC’s business to eviscerate institutions that hire them, because then those institutions (and others) will stop hiring them. Universities (especially Wesleyan) don’t want to hire firms that have a reputation for writing extremely critical reports. Consequently, the report is probably slanted towards Wesleyan’s administration (e.g. it’s creative explanation about the mistrust of Farias – that students mistrust him not because he is abrasive, but because he just doesn’t get to interact with them enough).

    And removing him from the process won’t solve a thing. He is still on the Title IX committees, anyway.

    Also, the part about “restorative justice” made me literally spit my drink up. Wesleyan is much more interested in inducing suffering than making sane and compassionate decisions like that.

    Nothing significant will change. Wesleyan will make token changes based on this report, pat themselves on the back, and point to this as evidence that they want to be held accountable. Meanwhile, students will continue to be unhappy because those changes won’t be meaningful and after awhile, the process will repeat itself with some new report or review or “discussion.” And somewhere down the road, some scandal or news item will trigger another upswing in student activism, which will eventually cool off (like it always does) without any meaningful institutional changes.

    If you all want the school to change for the better, or if you want to make this horrible process better for those involved, you have to be willing to be persistent about it. The only way to gain any ground with these people is to fight, inch by inch, and there just aren’t that many people willing to do that. It’s depressing.